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Logistics: Highways and Railways; Part 2 - Rail


Sweetwater and Nolan County have been fortunate to have the railroad pass through our community.  Early in the 20th Century, passenger trains would stop in downtown Sweetwater near Oak Street for commerce.  In recent times, it seemed like “going through” was the only thing they did.  Other than what Buzzi, USG, and GP used, that is about all they did was to “pass through”.  That was before the growth of industries like wind and oil & gas.


To my knowledge, there are only “7” Class 1 railroads in the US, 3 in Canada, and 2 in Mexico.  Sweetwater has “2” of the “7” in the US running through our community.  In 2012, both railroads that run through our community, the UP and BNSF had operating revenues of more than $20 B each.  The next closest, CSX Transportation, was in 3rd place with revenues of $11.5 B.  Both the UP and BNSF have more than 32,000 miles of track across the US and operate in the western two thirds of the US while having different focal points and transportation routes. 


The UP follows a path through Texas that somewhat follows the Mexico Boarder while the BNSF comes to Sweetwater then to Lubbock and west to Albuquerque and on to California.  As the oil & gas grew in the Permian Basin, the UP was situated to take advantage of their proximity to the oil play.  Since the BNSF didn’t run through the Permian Basin, they chose to pick the farthest western point in line with the Permian Basin, Sweetwater, TX!  Nolan County is also fortunate to have other rail opportunities as the TXOR Shortline runs to and from Buzzi in Maryneal.  The TXOR supplies Buzzi with coal and other materials and ships out cement on a private railroad that ties into the BNSF mainline.  We have EagleRail Car on the UP line in Roscoe that repairs railcars and Maalt LP Logistic Solutions that is off the BNSF main line and unloads sand to trucks on CR Rd 108 and then to their customer base.


As you may hear on the national news, “the Railroad is one way to get trucks off our highways and minimize the effects of pollution”.  Even though that statement is correct, it only talks about replacing certain trucks at some level across the country or in a limited role.  Much of the supplies are shipped by truck because the end users are not close to a rail drop off point.  Rail also isn’t as favorable in short runs where trucks need to haul the items to be shipped to the rail site and then picked up from the site to the customer.

Sweetwater is a good example of what happens when a location becomes a stopping point for a rail product that then needs to be shipped by truck the “last mile” or to the end-user.

Companies like Cape & Son has agriculture commodities trucked into Sweetwater and then shipped out by rail or vice versa. Sweetwater became more dependent on the trucking industry as the BNSF built the transload facility on the north side of town and was able to rely on railing larger loads in and out of their facility.  They were able to utilize “unit trains” in shipping agriculture commodities, sand, aggregate, pipe, and more. 

A “unit train” is approx. 100 railcar loads of a product that was picked up at point “a” and dropped at point “b”.  Manifest loads are those that have several railcar loads picked up and delivered at different points.  The cost of shipping “unit train” loads is cheaper than “manifest” loads.  A unit train can also arrive in a more timely manner as there is only one pickup and delivery point.

With the expansion of the BNSF Sweetwater Transload facility and the growth and expansion of the Cape and Son location, rail became a bigger player in the logistic market in West Texas.  It has allowed companies like Fairmount Santrol to build “3” sand silos and have sand shipped from Wisconsin to Sweetwater and then be trucked to the drilling sites in the Permian Basin.  Those silos can hold approx. 13,500 tons of sand.  A unit train of sand weighs approximately 10,000 tons.  We recently welcomed Vulcan Materials to the transload facility as they acquired a location to rail in aggregate used in road and construction base materials.  These companies are utilizing the reduced transportation pricing due to the unit train loads.

Here is where we come full circle and back to our roads.  For every “unit train” that carries product to/from Sweetwater, it takes approx. 350 Semi-Trucks to haul that product to/from the original or next location.  At one point before the drop in oil prices, we were hitting as many as three unit trains a month of sand into Sweetwater.  That’s approximately 1000+ trucks on our roads each month.

To assist in the future growth of Logistics in Sweetwater/Nolan County, SEED is working on a Logistic marketing flyer to promote the movement of goods through our community.  We attend Rail and Logistic conferences to learn more about the industry, issues our customers are dealing with, and how we can market to it.  We also have community officials from the City, County, Chamber, and SEED that meet with representatives from TXDOT.  We talk about future projects or potential trouble areas.  An example of such discussions is the addition of the street lights on west Broadway near the FM 1544 intersection.  This is a dangerous area due to the darkness and the increased truck traffic coming to/from the BNSF transload facility. This is also used by many of the participants that utilize the Nolan County Coliseum and the increase activities the Coliseum Board and Staff have brought into the facilities. We helped TXDOT understand our concern and worked with them to add the project to their existing project list for the Abilene District.  Other discussions include expanding Business Parks & business locations and working to better manage the increased traffic flow.  A current problem area is on CR 141 off of west Broadway where “7” sand trucks have high centered their rigs on the UP railroad and torn off the underbelly of their sand trailer and dumped sand on and along the road. 

Over the years it has gone from being called transportation or freight to what is now called Logistics.  The short definition of Logistics from Wikipedia is “the management of the flow of things between the point of origin and the point of consumption in order to meet requirements of customers or corporations.” Sweetwater/Nolan County, because of our economic diversity of manufacturing, renewable energy, proximity to the Permian Basin, Interstate Highways, and Railways ….. has become a Logistic hub in West Texas!

Until next time, be safe on our roads and highways NO texting and driving!

Ken Becker, Executive Director

Sweetwater Economic Development