Going off the Rails

A proposed line into the Bayport Industrial District has residents from Clear Lake to the East End vowing to stop the "toxic train" in its tracks

The baby did not have his usual vigorous appetite. In fact, he refused to eat at all on that February day. He was also running a fever. Greg Rincon and his wife decided not to take any chances with their 13-month-old, and packed him into their SUV for what should have been a quick trip to the doctor's.

The Rincons drove from their East End home onto nearby Telephone Road, and immediately confronted a familiar obstacle: a freight train sitting like a steel wall smack in the middle of the street. The Rincons had been through this drill enough to know that all the streets sliced by the East Belt track would be blocked indefinitely by this massive chain of tanker and hopper cars. Their only choice was to turn around, hit I-45 and reconnect with Telephone farther south, a detour that would add some 15 minutes to their journey.

"Here we are trying to make a straight line to the doctor's office, and we get derailed," Rincon says. "It was somewhat of an emergency."

Rincon: Residents are tired of being "held hostage" by train blockages.
Deron Neblett
Rincon: Residents are tired of being "held hostage" by train blockages.

Luckily the doctor was able to see them almost immediately. To the Rincons' relief, the child had nothing more than a mild stomach virus. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and sent them on their way. But the sense of relief soon gave way to renewed frustration on the way home, when they found themselves blocked by the same train, this time on the other side.

"Man, it just irritates me," says 35-year-old Rincon, executive director of the Eastwood/Broadmoor Area Community Development Corporation.

Rincon and his neighbors are on the cusp of even greater frustration. At a time when they hoped that paralyzing train traffic in their neighborhood was a fading remnant of the area's industrial past, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company and four chemical firms are seeking permission to build a new rail line that would feed even more traffic into residential areas already plagued by train blockages.

The San Jacinto Rail Limited, as the partnership between Burlington Northern and the chemical companies is known, would create a new line, connecting the Bayport Industrial District with the old Galveston, Houston & Henderson line that runs parallel to Highway 3. The partnership views the railroad as a way to bring competitive shipping rates to the industrial district, which presently operates under the monopolistic control of the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Residents along the proposed line view it less as a harbinger of competition than as a bearer of toxic freights, chronic inconvenience and fear. Hundreds of homes and dozens of schools sit near the line. All it would take is a single derailment to "wipe out half the town," in the ominous words of Eloise Smith, mayor of South Houston.

These residents have mounted a scrappy campaign to stop the project in its tracks. Yet for all the hand-wringing, the final decision about the controversial project lies with officials far away in Washington, D.C., who are keeping a bemused and increasingly alarmed eye on the growing opposition in Houston.

The Bayport Industrial District is home to more than two dozen chemical and plastic plants spread across a sci-fi landscape of grids, reactors and towering stacks. The chemical industry grew up on the back of the railroads and continues to use this mode of transportation almost exclusively to move its products around the United States.

The Union Pacific railroad acquired the golden goose of Bayport in 1996, when it purchased the Southern Pacific railroad, which previously enjoyed monopoly control over the industrial district. Soon after the merger, bottlenecks began choking the lines in Houston, precipitating a shipping "crisis" that snarled freight traffic throughout the region. It took months for Union Pacific to work out the kinks, and even longer to regain customer confidence.

Today traffic moves in and out of Bayport more smoothly, along a corridor that runs parallel to highways 146 and 225. Companies now complain about price-gouging.

"Union Pacific, having the only service in Bayport, has not provided us with competitive rates," says David Harpole, spokesman for Lyondell Chemical Company, one of the four chemical firms vying for the new track. "That cost has to be passed on to our customers."

While companies can take their charges of price-gouging to federal authorities, Lyondell, Equistar, ATOFINA and Basell USA -- along with Burlington Northern -- decided to go one better and build a line of their own. In August, their San Jacinto Rail partnership sent its application to the Surface Transportation Board for a 13-mile, $80 million line that would connect Bayport to the old GH&H line near Ellington Field. The San Jacinto group pitched a small-scale enterprise that would entail one train to and from Bayport a day.

As word leaked out about the project, startled residents up and down the proposed line believed the plan wasn't as benign as San Jacinto said. Homeowners in Clear Lake "never expected to have a toxic train in their backyard," explains Houston City Councilmember Shelley Sekula-Rodriguez. For their part, people in the train-choked East End viewed even one more locomotive on their snarled streets as a provocation. Those in between complained that the San Jacinto partnership was focusing exclusively on the area of new construction, without acknowledging the many thousands of people along the old GH&H line who stood to be affected.

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