Tour of Houston Railroads

Many thanks to our friend Paul Martin for a ticket to the Rice Design Alliance’s recent Freight Rail Tour.  This trip gave a fascinating look at Houston railroads - the industry that helped he city grow into today’s economic powerhouse.

Freight railroads were once thought to be fading away -- but current traffic is rebounding, thanks largely to international container shipping.  Freight trains move cargo just as quickly as eighteen-wheelers, but they do it more safely, cheaply and efficiently.  A train is one of the “greenest” choices among the various transportation modes.  Each train can keep as many as 200-300 truck off our highways, while expending a tenth of the fuel and reducing smog-producing pollution by two-thirds.  And with 2,200 trains moving through Houston each week, that’s a huge savings in labor, fuel and pollution.  Now imagine what will happen when the newly-widened Panama Canal re-opens in 2014.  The Port of Houston (and its connecting railroads) can expect to be busier than ever!

So what is being shipped on these increasingly numerous freight trains?  And why should we care?  Trains carry the stuff of our American Dream – the concrete and lumber to build Houston’s houses; the energy to heat and cool them; the TV’s and VCR’s to furnish them; the grain to bake our daily bread; the t-shirts we wear; and the plastics for our children’s toys.

Freight trains are an essential component of our global supply chain – but as our city grows, the co-mingling of railroads and residential neighborhoods causes increasing problems.  Overpasses or underpasses can keep train and auto traffic separate, but they are expensive and disruptive to build.  Safety and noise can be a divisive issue as well.  In 2006, a three-way effort by the City of Houston, the City of Bellaire, and the City of West University Place created a “quiet zone” inside the West Loop.  Throughout this zone, the three cities provided advanced safety features at each street crossing.  In return, the railroads silenced the whistles that warn of oncoming trains.  But none of these solutions is simple, cheap or quick.

Which means we need to be a whole lot smarter about an issue that is critical to our city’s economic future.  For more information, see…

  • Citizens’ Transportation Coalition --
  • Houston Region Freight Rail Study --
  • “Economic Crossroads”, by Carolyn Feible, Houston Chronicle, September 1, 2009.

And then watch the Houston railroads grow!

Ann Martin

Roger Martin Properties