Off the rails: Trains become problematic while their future uncertain

The railroad built this country. Indeed, many U.S. cities purposely grew right on the rail lines that connected them to the rest of the country.

Today, however, the almost universal ownership of automobiles has pushed railroads largely into history, even toward obsolescence.

Much of the country, including the Rio Grande Valley, doesn’t even have passenger rail service; the trains that run through the area carry freight to and from Mexico.

Rail lines running through downtown Harlingen and other cities a growing problem, as increased trade with Mexico leads to longer trains, more congestion and longer wait times at railroad crossings.

Trains must travel slowly through town due to the risk of a hitting an automobile at one of the crossings.

But those slow speeds mean the trains take longer to get through the crossings.

Officials are pondering possible solutions. One Harlingen commissioner suggested scheduling train crossings to times of low auto traffic. Mayor Chris Boswell raised the possibility of building overpasses or underpasses to eliminate most of the crossings altogether.

No solution is perfect; the first option would delay freight deliveries, raising transit costs and the risk of spoilage if produce or other perishable goods are being moved.

Overpasses are costly, although officials and the public might think the convenience is worth the burden on taxpayers.

Brownsville and southern Cameron County spent millions rerouting one rail line from downtown to the outside of town.

But while officials ponder whether to make similar expenditures in Harlingen, or in other towns that face the same problems, a new development could make the issue moot by virtually eliminating rail transit altogether.

One of SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s more terrestrial projects is the Hyperloop, a tunnel-enclosed rail system.

He originally touted it as a passenger line, but it’s raised more excitement as a way to move freight at speeds above 600 miles an hour, and other companies are working on their own systems.

Even Musk’s friendly billionaire competitor, Sir Richard Branson, created Virgin Hyperloop One to build capsules that can move freight through tunnels. Virgin, SpaceX and other companies are developing prototype systems that soon could be tested in Dubai; Chicago; Toulouse, France; and Guizhou, China.

One company, DP World Cargospeed, promises to have up to three hyperloop freight lines operating by 2021.

How long it might take for such technology to reach the Valley is anyone’s guess.

But since this is the entryway to billions of dollars in goods from Mexico and other countries to the south, and plenty of land is available to build such a line, a South Texas Hyperloop system might not be that far away.

This raises a new dilemma for local officials: Should they invest millions now in railway remediation, at the risk of seeing a new transit system replace it anyway in a few years, or do they wait to see where technology takes overland transport, at the risk of waiting years, perhaps decades, before it reaches the Valley?

Either option is a gamble, and taxpayers might want to tell their officials how to bet their money.

The Valley Morning Star