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MofW ... Working On The Railroad

The Tex Mex Railroad

"In the annals of the great national railroads, the Texas Mexican Railway, or the Tex Mex as South Texans know it, was always looked on as a small feeder line out in the wilds of the brushlands. But to the families of ranchers and sheepherders and later the coalminers and farmers along the line, it was their window to the outside world -- from the 1880s until highways began crisscrossing the region in the 1920s and 1930s."

After several false starts beginning in the 1850s a February 1875 charter for the Corpus Christi and Rio Grande Railroad Company allowed the organizers of the railroad to name Uriah Lott, born in Albany, New York in 1842, as president. Lott put men to grading even before the charter arrived, and although work proceeded fitfully due to a lack of funds at times, he was able to keep workers on the job more or less constantly.

"On November 26, 1876, Lott ceremoniously drove in the first spike, gilded for the occasion, in the presence of the assembled citizenry of Corpus Christi. That night the spike was stolen."

By the beginning of 1877, workers had succeeded in laying 25 miles of track, but then money problems set in again, besides a "share of bad luck and then some. Indians attacked the crew at Banquete, only two men escaped with their lives but without their clothing, and these made their way to the house of W. W. Wright, who took them in and gave them something to wear. A similar fate overtook the Dull brothers (investors) who, prevailed upon to take a second mortgage, came out to look at the works, were accosted by a band of robbers, relieved of their valuables, and left tied to mesquite trees in their underwear."

"On June 30, 1881 the Texas Legislature granted new owners a charter with the name of Texas-Mexican Railway Company. It has retained that name to this day, but South Texans have always called it the Tex Mex Railroad."

Today the historic Tex Mex runs from Corpus Christi to Laredo, Texas in 157 miles and is one of the most important links in the "NAFTA Railway," which serves Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

"The privatization of Mexico's national railway system ranks as one of the most important developments" in the railroad industry in recent years, and "Tex Mex, with partners Kansas City Southern and TFM, is making substantial improvements in cross-border rail freight traffic, mostly through physical plant investments that reduce cross-border transit times and smooth the customs clearance process."

"Train movements across Tex Mex's border bridge spanning the Rio Grande have become much more fluid. A new computer system has improved communications with U.S. and Mexican customs. Information on train manifests ... is now provided at least three hours in advance. This has reduced delays on the bridge significantly."

"Working with six agencies -- U.S. and Mexican customs, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Mexican border patrol, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and SAGAR, the Mexican equivalent of the USDA -- Tex Mex 'provides all critical functions on the bridge,' says CEO Larry Fields."

"Tex Mex is also playing an aggressive role in trying to solve the service problems plaguing the greater Houston area resulting from Union Pacific's takeover of the Southern Pacific."

Negotiations to purchase "an out-of-service UP right-of-way" are in process and this purchase "is one element of a plan developed by the Consensus Partners, an organization of Houston area railroads and shippers whose objectives are 'to restore the competition and operating arrangements that existed before the UP-SP merger, add substantial new competitive infrastructure to the region, and enable Tex Mex to be an effective competitive alternative to UP for U.S.-Mexico traffic.'"

"Why is UP resisting the Consensus Plan? 'When you're a big railroad like UP, you don't want to see your traffic erode,' says Fields. 'Some people would rather see business go away from the railroad than have competition, and UP will tell you over and over this is not about competition, but it certainly is what it's all about. Our industry -- any industry -- does not do well without it."

"The customers will find a way to go somewhere else if we in this industry don't take care of them. Without competition, we're all in trouble, and we'll all become dinosaurs. I don't know why we fight so hard among ourselves when the pie is so large. We'd rather run traffic off and see it go to another mode or see customers go out of business rather than provide the service they need at a good rate. I have a hard time understanding our industry for that.'"

Unfortunately, Tex Mex's quest for increased competition apparently does not include a high regard for safety. Over the last two years, the maintenance of way work force on the Tex Mex has been reduced by 50 percent, causing needed maintenance and repairs, particularly on bridges, to go undone. BMWE General Chairman Roger Sanchez is working hard to get the Tex Mex to acknowledge these safety concerns and has also contacted the Federal Railroad Administration in attempts to have them focus on these critical safety issues.

In a visit to the Tex-Mex in the middle of February of this year, we talked with workers laying new track after a recent 11-car derailment near Laredo. Because of the reduced forces, many of them were driving the 150 miles plus from Corpus Christi to the work site every day.

Despite the distance as well as the large George Washington Birthday Celebration Parade in Laredo and Mexico (in which many of the children of BMWE members participated) the Lodge 1634 meeting beginning at 8:00 a.m. on February 20 had over a 75 percent attendance.

BMWE members we met included Pete Benavides, foreman with 28 years of service; Robert Couling, tamper operator with 10 years; Ernesto Elizalde, Jr., laborer, 19 years; Roberto Escobedo, laborer with 15 years service; Antonio Garcia, laborer with 29 years of service; Rogelio (Roy) Garza, section foreman with 20 years service and Secretary-Treasurer of Lodge 1634; Arnold Jimenez, now the only welder with 9-1/2 years; Enrique Lara, foreman with 25 years service who is also a BMWE District Chairman; Juan P. Lopez, machine operator with 26 years service who is also President of Lodge 1634; Victor Moncivais, tamper operator with 19 years service; Juan Rodriguez, laborer, 19 years service; Neri Saenz, labor/operator with seven years service; Joe Sciaraffa, laborer with 20 years; Gonzalo Vasquez, a laborer being used as a welder helper, 25 years service; Presciano Vasquez, tamper operator; Tomas Vasquez, ballast regulator operator, 18-1/2 years; Tony Vira, tamper operator who has worked on the railroad for a total of 13 years with a stint in the oil fields between the first five and last eight years.

(Quotes from A History of the Tex Mex Railway, 2nd Ed. 1996, by Dr. Stan Green and The Texas Mexican Railway, "Railway Age," September 1998.)

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