News & Reviews News Wire BNSF to issue permits to prevent congestion once Eagle Pass, El Paso gateways reopen

BNSF to issue permits to prevent congestion once Eagle Pass, El Paso gateways reopen

By Bill Stephens | December 22, 2023

As shutdown enters is fifth day, there’s no word on when customs officials may reopen the No. 2 and No. 3 rail interchanges with Mexico

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BNSF Railway Eagle Pass to Mexico rail
Bound for BNSF Railway trackage rights on Union Pacific, a Canadian National locomotive leads a northbound BNSF train across the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas, in May 2019. Bill Stephens

FORT WORTH, Texas — BNSF Railway will use a permit system to prevent congestion once the Eagle Pass and El Paso, Texas, rail border crossings are reopened.

The bridges over the Rio Grande have been shut down since Monday as customs officials divert personnel to process a surge of migrants who have entered the country illegally. It’s still unclear when the rail crossings, which handle 45% of UP’s cross-border traffic, will be reopened.

“BNSF remains in regular communication with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) following Monday’s closure of the Eagle Pass and El Paso crossings due to the migrant crisis at the Mexico-Texas border,” the railroad said in a customer advisory today. “Although an exact timeline for opening the border has not been received from the CBP, BNSF plans to issue a temporary permit embargo affecting southbound traffic moving through Eagle Pass and El Paso, Texas to Mexico. This embargo will impact all shipments excluding automotive and intermodal. Automotive and intermodal shipments, which are being managed through alternate means, are not covered by this embargo. The embargo will take effect immediately.”

BNSF says the embargo will prevent congestion when the backlog of traffic begins to move once the bridges are reopened. BNSF has trackage rights over Union Pacific to reach Eagle Pass, and has its own route and bridge to interchange with Ferromex at El Paso.

“While this embargo action may lead to some additional disruption to our affected customers in the short term, we are confident that this measure will provide the additional capacity needed to expedite recovery and resume cross-border operations once the interchanges are reopened,” the railroad says, noting that permits will be issued on a case-by-case basis.

UP says it remains in contact with federal officials and continues to urge them to reopen the border crossings.

“We have spoken to congressional leaders, regulators, leaders at CBP and other agencies along with state and local officials,” Kenny Rocker, UP’s executive vice president of marketing and sales, said in a customer advisory late yesterday. “Every day that the border is closed, Union Pacific is forced to embargo customers’ goods on more than 60 trains, or nearly 4,500 rail cars, with an equivalent of goods being held in Mexico. We are doing everything possible to stage trains and work with customers to prevent congestion at the border. I appreciate those customers who have already contacted their elected officials to reopen the border crossings. I encourage any customer to share their concerns regarding the CBP Agency closure of train traffic with Congressional offices and Executive Branch Agencies and request a timeline for reopening. Thank you for working with us to help restore the critical trade routes between the U.S. and Mexico.”

The closure of the border crossings, which handle a combined 24 trains per day, has left UP and BNSF train crews without work. Yesterday the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO issued a statement on the bridge closures.

“As the nation’s largest transportation federation, we are proud to represent thousands of workers who move critical freight into and around the country, and who keep our economy moving. At the same time, we recognize that the humanitarian and security crisis on the southern border necessitated the operational decision to shut down two critical freight rail border crossings. Extended closure of these crossings will impact the entire freight rail network and supply chain. We cannot compound the current problem and risk an economic crisis. Transportation labor urges the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection to reopen the Eagle Pass and El Paso rail crossings in Texas, and allow freight trains to resume service in a safe and secure manner,” union President Greg Regan and Secretary-Treasurer Shari Semelsberger said.

The Surface Transportation Board, which has authority over railroad service, has not commented publicly and an agency spokesman declined to comment yesterday.

The busiest U.S.-Mexico gateway, Canadian Pacific Kansas City’s bridge linking Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, remains open. But CPKC yesterday placed an embargo on southbound empty intermodal containers and some agricultural traffic bound for Mexico. Shippers can, however, use permits to move affected traffic.

“The CPKC Laredo and Brownsville gateways continue normal operations for all other rail traffic,” the railroad said in a customer advisory yesterday. “CPKC is working closely with state and federal officials to ensure continued safe and effective operations at both gateways.”

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman did not respond to a Trains News Wire email seeking an update.

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