By Diane Lindquist
With a sweeping rehabilitation, the Baja California Railroad has realized such success that it is driving renewed hopes for a cross-border rail transport system to move goods around Baja California and into the United States.
Since taking over the line three years ago, Baja California Railroad (BCRR) has modernized the 42-mile (71.4 km) stretch of line from Tijuana to Tecate. Along with other improvements, the company replaced rails, eliminated a tunnel, tore down a wooden bridge and erected a concrete one and created a holding yard.
The changes have more than doubled the company’s business. And it operates only four hours a day, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. when it can run its cars on the rail lines through San Diego.
The transformation is prompting Baja California officials to move forward on building a separate rail line from Ensenada’s port to the BCRR connection at Tecate. If a similar upgrade occurs on the California stretch of rail linking up with a line further east, Baja California manufacturers would have a more secure, less expensive way to transport goods to and from the United States.
“It’s just a matter of putting things together. Both sides need to open the huge market we have between the regions,” said Roberto Romania Tamayo, the Baja California Railroad’s director. “It is a must do.”
Long an ambition on both sides of the border, cross-border rail service would allow exporters in Baja California to avoid northbound truck delays at the congested Otay Mesa commercial crossing, as well as the need to switch drivers at the international border.
Hopes of developing the rail system have been thwarted by the age and condition of the rail line and its circuitous path east from San Diego, dipping south into Baja California and then back north across the border to Plaster City in California’s Imperial County.
If coordinating among local, state and federal governments in the United States and Mexico hasn’t been difficult enough, a series of revolving and inexperienced owners has made realizing the dream even more elusive.
The entire line of the San Diego and Arizona Railway was completed in 1919 by San Diego sugar, hotel and transportation magnate John Spreckels. In its early days, it was credited with helping San Diego develop into a major commercial center.
Because of its 148-mile (238 km) route zigzagging across mountains, crossing bridges and trestles, dropping into Mexico and threading through scores of tunnels, the line was dubbed “The Impossible Railroad.” Damage over the years from heavy rainstorms, landslides and fires only made that title more fitting and the challenge of revitalizing the railroad more daunting.
Now, with the Baja California portion of the line being upgraded, the key to developing a modern, functional cross-border rail transport system lies in California.
North of the border, the railroad’s owner is the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), San Diego County’s public transit service. Although focused more on local transportation, the MTS is committed to the cross-border system.
“We do see this as a viable way to move goods across the border,” said Rob Schupp, MTS director of marketing and communication.
In 2013, MTS signed a 50-year lease — with an option to renew for 49 more years —with Pacific Imperial Railway. The contract sets specific milestones for upgrading the line, including investing at least $1 million a year. The firm has lived up to or surpassed the requirements, Schupp said.
It has been estimated that it will cost at least $120 million to transform the line so it could carry the double-stack rail cars in use today.
Attempts by phone to reach Donald Stoecklein, president of the Pacific Imperial Railway, were unsuccessful.
Talks among the various stakeholders on both sides of the border reportedly have been ongoing.
“We are optimistic that by the end of the year, the problems will be resolved,” said Baja California economic development secretary Humberto Carlo Bonfante Olache.
Previously under federal control, the railroad now operates under a Baja California government entity, Admicarga. BCRR, formed by a number of prominent Tijuana businessmen, including Fernando Beltran and Dilma Campos, took over from an underperforming company and now holds a concession with 28 more years to run.
In an interview at the BCRR’s new three-story office building just south of the border overlooking the point where the rail line crosses the border at San Ysidro, director Romania discussed the changes underway.
“We’ve been doing a lot of rehabilitation,” he said. “We’re trying to upgrade the entire
Last year, BCRR invested 250 million pesos ($14.5 million), and it plans to spend another 200 million pesos ($11.7 million) this year. Seventy percent of the money came from the state and federal governments and 30 percent from BCRR.
One of the biggest improvements was creating a five-spur holding yard adjacent to the border where empty rail cars can sit until the border opens. “Previously we had the capacity to store only eight cars. Now with this new capacity, we have space for 68 cars,” Romania said. “For such a short line it is really good. We think it’s enough, but you never know.”
Iron rails were ripped up and steel laid down, replacing the 90 gauge track with 112. The change allows an increase from 4,800 cars to 12,000 cars per year to move on the tracks. “We can put more load on it, and we can move faster,” Romania said.
In addition, one of four tunnels on the line was blasted open. The wooden Matanuco bridge was replaced with a concrete structure. And, the Tecate bridge, three-quarters mile long, will get the same treatment this year, he said.
Operating costs have been cut by $70,000 a year, Romania said. The company is making a profit, but it is being plowed back into improvements. The complete renovation is expected to take four to five years.
BCRR’s biggest clients are Z Gas , North StarGas, Empacadora Rosarito, Cerveceria Cuahutemoc-Moctezuma, which makes Tecate beer and requires large imports of grains and corn syrup. Other clients receive shipments of borax, pig lard, lumber, steel, paper and cattle feed.
Liquid petroleum gas (LP) accounts for 60 to 78 percent of the business, especially since state-owned Pemex allowed the the gas company to to be privatized. In March, shipments of the fuel increased 300 percent in 30 days.
Romania, an industrial engineer and lawyer in international relations, worked in Baja California maquiladora manufacturing plants, including Mattel. “I didn’t have any experience in the railroads,” he said, but he knows what is needed.
“With all the maquilas that are here, there are a lot of raw materials that can be brought here,” he said. “To attract customers, you need first to give them security for their merchandize and then efficiency.”