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Texas-Pacífico Railroad Gearing Up For Pipeline Shipments To Alpine

A train rolls down a southern stretch of the old South Orient Railroad as part of a test and inspection of the line. (Janna DeMott Stubbs)

San Angelo-based Texas-Pacífico Railroad is gearing up to ship parts of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline into Alpine on a stretch of the old South Orient Railroad that, until recent weeks, had not been used in years.

The company has been making test runs through Alpine in recent weeks, with engineers on hand performing inspections and laying gravel that will be used to rebuild the line along the way.

"We were running locomotives out west to check the condition of the track, we do that visually, but we also like to run the power and see how the track performs and the bridges perform, so that was really kind of part of an inspection," said Elizabeth Grindstaff, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.

Texas-Pacífico is a subsidiary of Mexican rail and mining giant Grupo México. As part of a public-private partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation, the company has to eventually rebuild the railroad's stretches in the Big Bend region and the international rail bridge in Presidio that was destroyed by fires in 2008 and 2011.

Grindstaff said the prospects for actually getting that job done that are now looking better.

"It makes it just much easier from the financial aspects of saying okay, this section can actually pay for itself, we've got a good solid customer," she said.

"We have an obligation to rebuild the bridge, but from a financial perspective, it's clear that the pipeline business has made it financially much more comfortable."

Rail shipments of pipe could start arriving in Alpine as soon as February, and are expected to continue through the spring.

Sections of the pipe have already been staged near Fort Stockton, and the pipeline company - Energy Transfer - has said it plans to start construction in January.

Grindstaff believes the rehabilitation of the railroad through Brewster and Presidio Counties could encourage new mining in the region.

"For other customers in the area that have kind of entertained the idea of rail service, particularly some of the mines in the region, they can get on because now the track is ready to go, we have more power, we've put crews at Fort Stockton, we'll eventually have crews at Alpine that are based out of there," she said.

Mining hasn't been a huge industry in the Big Bend in recent years, and more ambitious projects like the Shafter silver mine have fizzled, but Sul Ross geology professor Dr. Kevin Urbanczyk said smaller operations have held steady, and that there's still ongoing interest in the region.

"Maybe once a year or so, somebody will contact me from outside of the region and ask questions about some kind of deposits or another," he said. "So there are prospectors who are just looking to find that right opportunity."

Urbanczyk said it might be difficult for any new mining interests to get their product to this particular railroad because of the terrain it runs through, but there also might be someone who's willing to try.

"There's still the potential that there's some mineral out there that would be economically viable, if the conditions were just right."

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.