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FREIGHT REIGNS: The spots where trains stop

0427
 2016


On a Brenham rail spur, Stanpac employee Charlie Gilbert approaches an emptied boxcar awaiting pickup by a train. LEFT: At the wheel of a ‘track mobile,’ employee Ronnie Harris moves dropped-off boxcars to and from the company’s loading dock. The track mobile has both train wheels and street tires. (Sarah Beal photo)

Story by Ed Crowell
Photography by Sarah Beal
 
A few blocks from downtown Brenham, long trains roll through nearly every day. But three nights a week, a train slows to a stop to leave behind boxcars loaded with giant rolls of what’s called “poly coated cupstock paper.” It takes about 20 minutes to detach the two or three cars on a rail spur behind a former cotton mill, and the shortened train is on its way east.
 
The next day, workers for Stanpac, a Canadian company that bought the abandoned mill buildings in 2010, use a special vehicle to pull the cars to a loading dock and remove the paper with forklifts. 
 
The 3,200-pound rolls, which travel for two weeks by rail from a paper mill in Lewiston, Idaho, are stacked in warehouse space that can hold a 90-day supply. 
 
Above and adjoining the warehouse, clattering machines turn the stiff paper into pint and half-gallon containers. Much of the packaging is printed with the familiar silhouette of a cow led by a little girl. 
 
Those empty containers are boxed and trucked a mile away to be filled with the pride of Brenham — Blue Bell ice cream. 
 
From ice cream cartons to animal feed to foam mattresses, historic railroad lines born in the 1880s continue to help Texas businesses create products. Some of the companies that still use freight shipments by rail are located in areas served by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative. 
 
The train that unloaded Blue Bell’s packaging is part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), the nation’s largest railroad.

(Sarah Beal photo)Blue Bell’s cartons are made by a Brenham company from rolls of a coated paper shipped by rail from Idaho and warehoused until needed.
 
Thirty-five miles to the west in Giddings, a town named for an 1800s railroad investor, another rail line is run by the second-largest railroad company, Union Pacific. Their trains stop in Giddings to unload grain from the Midwest for Cargill, a 150-year-old international producer of agricultural and food products.
 
Trains operated by both railroads crisscross Washington, Burleson, Lee, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, where most of Bluebonnet’s members live. The trains primarily carry shipments to the industry-heavy metropolises of Houston, San Antonio or Dallas and beyond. 
 
Train whistles blow at street crossings and the locomotive engines roar as they pass through Bastrop, Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, La Grange, Caldwell and Burton. None of the trains stop to load or unload in those towns. 
 
Smithville is a switching hub for Union Pacific. A complex of tracks there is busy with rail cars being repositioned from train to train to move on to other locales. There are no freight customers in Smithville. 
 
The biggest volume of shipments in the Bluebonnet service area goes to the Fayette Power Project outside La Grange. The Lower Colorado River Authority’s plant receives an average of eight carloads of coal from Wyoming each day to generate electricity. 
 
U.S. freight railroads are mostly privately owned and operate almost exclusively on tracks the railroads build and maintain, according to the Association of American Railroads. From 1980 to 2015, railroad companies spent around $600 billion for locomotives, freight cars, tracks, bridges, tunnels and infrastructure and equipment, according to the association’s website. 
 
How does railroad freight stack up against truck freight in the United States? The latest figures from a 2012 survey by the U.S. Department of Transportation states that trains carried about 1.6 billion tons of freight, 14.4 percent of the total amount carried in the country. Trucks carried about 8 billion tons, or 71.3 percent of freight. The rest traveled by ship or aircraft. 
 
Trains take freight products longer distances: 805 average miles per shipment by rail compared with 227 average miles per shipment by trucks. 
 
In Texas, Union Pacific operates on 6,317 miles of track and BNSF runs on 5,122 miles of track. 
 
Freight that ended up in Texas amounted to 3.1 million carloads in 2012, with coal, gravel/sand, chemicals and farm products topping the cargo list. Freight originating in Texas totaled 1.9 million carloads, most of it chemicals, gravel/sand and petroleum products.
 

OUR REGION’S TWO RAIL GIANTS 

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway operates primarily across the West and Midwest on 32,500 miles of routes. The tracks reach into 28 states and three Canadian provinces. The company’s headquarters are in Fort Worth. 
 
Union Pacific Railroad also serves the West and Midwest in 23 states over 32,000 miles of routes. It is headquartered in Omaha. 
 
Both companies play deep roles in U.S rail history. 
 
Burlington dates itself to a predecessor rail line launched in 1849 in Illinois. In 1995, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe companies merged. In 2010, the company became a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s company Berkshire Hathaway Inc. 
 
Union Pacific’s origins date to 1862, when Congress approved construction of a line from the Missouri River to the Pacific. Many acquisitions of other railroads followed.

 
DELIVERING CARTONS FOR BRENHAM’S BEST 
 
Kyle Hunter, vice president of logistics for Stanpac, visits Brenham regularly from the company’s home base in Smithville, Ontario. He said the 60-year-old dairy packaging company did a financial study of rail versus trucking before it bought the Brenham property in 2009 and moved a year later from a Dallas location that was not on a rail line. 
 
“The positives of having rail service greatly outweigh the negatives. We’re finding a $50,000 a year savings over what we had paid in Dallas” for trucks to ship in paper, Hunter said. Deliveries of rail cars to Brenham generally are on time, he said. 
 

(Sarah Beal photo)At the wheel of a ‘track mobile,’ employee Ronnie Harris moves dropped-off boxcars to and from the company’s loading dock. The track mobile has both train wheels and street tires.
Across the tracks from the plant, remnants of a busier rail era are visible. Small houses built for the cotton mill’s workers remain. 
 
Brenham’s first rail line arrived in 1861 and a second in 1880. A two-story tower built beside multiple tracks gave rail traffic controllers a good view for directing track-switching operations. Union Depot was a busy passenger station in the early 1900s. 
 
Inside the Stanpac plant, bustling, noisy production begins as paper rolls are fitted onto printing presses. Ice cream brand names, logos and consumer information is printed on the rolls before they are moved to other machines. 
 
The paper is cut and formed into lids on the top floor. Machines on the bottom floor shape the containers and heat seal the poly coated seams. It is a clean place where workers in goggles, hairnets and earplugs carefully operate and monitor everything moving through the clattering machines. 
 
Blue Bell represents 80 percent of Stanpac’s business in Brenham. Production goes on 24 hours a day, four days a week. The plant also fashions ice cream containers for H-E-B’s store brand and other smaller brands. 
 
Blue Bell also uses the BNSF track to get shipments of sugar. Two other companies in Brenham get rail shipments: Valmont Industries, which fabricates steel products, and Innocor Foam Technologies, which makes foam for mattresses and furniture. 
 
How many pint and half-gallon containers are produced in Brenham for ice cream fans? Hunter adds up the numbers in his head: “Around 500 million a year.” 


RIDING THE RAILS 

Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service, runs through Texas and most other states on tracks owned by the freight lines. Freight has priority, so it is not uncommon for Amtrak trains to be sidelined while freight trains pass. 
 
The Amtrak lines in Texas roughly parallel Interstate 10 through the lower half of the state and also go north and south between Interstate 35 and U.S. 281. The nearest stops for residents of Bluebonnet’s service area are in San Marcos, Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

 
GRAINS IN GIDDINGS END UP AS FEED 
 
In Giddings, Cargill’s plant, at the end of a road across from Giddings High School, makes feed for all kinds of animals. Grains used to make the feed are brought by rail from the Midwest. 
 
Most of the feed is made for cattle, horses and chickens, but it is also made for dogs and cats. In the past, the plant has even made feed for shrimp farms and zoos. 
 
The plant was built on its current site beside Union Pacific tracks in 1986. For decades, Cargill and earlier owners had a feed mill downtown on the tracks there. 

(Sarah Beal photo)A Union Pacific engine pushes hopper cars loaded with grains from the Midwest into the Cargill animal feed plant in Giddings.
 
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the Cargill plant receives six to eight rail cars filled with whole grains such as corn and oats, leftover mash from distilleries, and soybean, cotton seed and sunflower meals. 
 
Every day, plant manager Jim Varner evaluates the advantages of rail versus trucks for grains coming into his plant. “It’s an ongoing process. We’re constantly managing the pricing and the availability of the products we need and how long it will take to get them here.” 
 
The two transportation methods are split 50/50 now, he said. 
 
“It’s usually two weeks to get our shipments by rail,” said Varner. “There’s pretty good service here. Long delays were more common in Seattle,” where he worked previously. 
 
Shorter-distance trucking is dependable, he said, because “drivers are highly motivated to move fast. They are attached to each load and can’t do anything else until that’s delivered.” 
 
The grains that arrive by rail come in compartments in hopper cars. One car can hold about 100 tons of grain that is loaded through rooftop openings. On the bottom of each compartment is a chute where the grain flows out. 
 
Cargill employees track the expected arrival times of the trains by computer. After the cars are backed onto the spur, employees uncouple them. Empty cars from previous deliveries get recoupled to the train. 
 
Once the train has left, workers use a tractor to pull the hopper cars over a grated receiving pit. The chutes are opened and grain pours into bins in the basement. From there, elevators take the bins up in the plant’s soaring storage tower. 
 
Within 10 days, the grains are turned into feed. 
 
The milling process uses heavy metal cylinders to compress the grains, along with nutritional additives and binding agents, into various sized pellets. Some feed is also produced as crumbles or a finer meal. 
 
Each feed has a particular recipe. The mixing process used to be controlled with a large board of knobs and levers. Now that board mostly has been replaced with computers. 
 
It takes about three hours to make each type of feed at the plant, which operates 24 hours a day five days a week with 50 employees. 
 
All 250 products made at the Cargill plant are shipped out on trucks. About half travels as bulk shipments to large farms and ranches in Central Texas. The other half goes in bags to area feed stores and pet supply outlets. 
 
John Dowell, the mayor of Giddings, has worked at the plant for nine years. As pricing and formulation manager, he keeps a close eye on the ever-fluctuating feed ingredients market. 
 
He said high-protein soybeans, an important component of many animal feeds, often comes from Minnesota because there is no soybean crushing operation in Texas. “Trucking isn’t economical from so far away. It’s a huge advantage for us to be able to bring that in by rail,” he said. 
 
Corn is another major ingredient. It was scarce in Texas during the recent drought years. 
 
“There’s no way trucks could have hauled the amounts (of corn) we need. We would have struggled to stay open if we did not have the rail then,” Dowell said. 
 
Dowell is well aware of the town’s railroad history. 
 
The city was founded in 1871 when the Houston and Central Texas Railway extended a line from Brenham. 
 
In downtown Giddings, a freight depot built in the 1880s has been turned into a museum with several rooms of exhibits. A smaller freight depot from the 1890s is nearby and has an exterior painted scene with life-sized travelers. The brick passenger station from the 1920s houses the Chamber of Commerce. It replaced an earlier wooden station from the late 1800s. 
 
“We’re working to do more with those facilities,” Dowell said. “It’s not just us. This area has many restored depots. I could see promoting tours of all of them. It’s an important part of our history.” 
 
The depots, while relics of the past, stand as reminders that trains continue to roll into the future with raw materials delivered directly to manufacturers.
 

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