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Border Rail Proposal Getting Mixed Reviews

As Mexican officials contemplate relocating a major railway that connects the state of Chihuahua to Texas, trade experts in El Paso have mixed views on whether the investment is needed immediately.

Men work on the railroad tracks at the Union Pacific railyard in El Paso on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.

EL PASO — When César Duarte, the governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, announced last week that the government wanted to move the railroad tracks that pass through Ciudad Juárez out of the heart of the city, Cristina Jiménez knew that the battle had just begun.

Jiménez, a former Ciudad Juárez councilwoman, and other local residents have been trying for years to get the government and the railroads to build a bypass, arguing that the trains going through Juárez and El Paso, its sister city across the border, expose residents to several threats like dangerous freight and pedestrian fatalities.

While Jiménez considered the governor’s announcement of a bypass a good start, she remained skeptical, in part because the railroads had yet to agree to any such plan.

“We have two years in this fight,” she said, adding that words did not necessarily translate into action. Calls to Duarte’s office in Ciudad Juárez seeking more details about the rail relocation plan were not returned.

No starting date has been set for the relocation, which would — at the Mexican government’s expense — move the rail line used by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railways west to the Mexican border near Santa Teresa, N.M.  

Nate Asplund, an assistant vice president for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, said a new rail line would take almost a decade or more to build. No environmental studies had been conducted and no international permits had been secured — steps required before the tracks could be moved, he added.  

“It needs to be engineered, it needs to be funded, and it needs to be constructed,” Asplund said. Union Pacific officials said in an email that the company would be happy to join the discussion about whether or how to move the rail line. While trade specialists in El Paso are not worried that the move would hinder cross-border trade, some question whether it would be a wise use of resources for Ciudad Juárez, which is trying to recover after years of bloodshed and cartel-related violence. 

“All of us on both sides of the border would rejoice if the rails were on the outside of the city,” said Alan Russell, the chief executive of Tecma, an El Paso-based outsourcing company for Mexican businesses. “But realistically, and the end of the day, that’s why the cities are here.”

Russell also questioned the urgency.

“These communities need so much more,” he added.

Some El Paso business leaders say the bypass makes sense economically. To accommodate the community, rail traffic now occurs only during part of the day. 

“The current rail movements that are coming through the heart of downtown Juárez and El Paso are limited to a very narrow window of operations,” said Bob Cook, the founder of Cook Strategies and the former president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation.

But he also sees advantages to upgrading current facilities. 

“If it bypasses Juárez it’s going to be rail movements primarily through the interior of Mexico and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think there is an advantage with keeping the rail lines in place that comes through the heart of town and enhancing their capabilities.”

Asplund agreed that a bypass would create a long-term solution to a long-running problem. But he said that if traffic was a primary complaint, it might have to be addressed another way.

Several projects, including grade separations, bridges and underpasses, are underway in Ciudad Juárez, infrastructure that Burlington Northern supports and says would ease congestion.

“This is a big deal, these are big projects, and there is no reason anyone should be faint at heart to get after them,” he said. “But we’ve expressed that a two-phased approach makes sense.” 

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