Railroading's next traffic boom: Cement for Trump's wall

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, January 25, 2017

We all know that in the classic 1967 movie “The Graduate,” a young Dustin Hoffman was advised that the world ahead was about plastics. Given that President Donald Trump is moving forward to fund a wall along the Mexican border, I would advise recent grads that the word in 2017 is “cement.” I’m not sure how the iPhone generation would receive this, but it could be good for railroading.

 When we were researching, writing, and editing the special report about the future of railroading in our March issue (in the hands of subscribers any day now; for retail purchase Feb. 14), one observer remarked that railroading in the post-coal era is staking its fortunes on cost control, intermodal growth, and some commodity that hasn’t been identified just yet. Perhaps that other commodity is the cement for the wall (as well as steel rebar and aggregates, but that is a topic for another day).

 While questions remain about the feasibility of building a wall and the need for one, Trump on Wednesday signed orders to move the first federal resources toward its construction. I cannot imagine that the managers of covered hoppers, boxcars, and heavy-duty flatcars at BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, which serve the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, aren’t excited at hearing this news.

I’ve read several reports about the wall’s dimensions and costs, and they vary greatly. Some put the length at 1,000 miles – along a 2,000-mile border – while others say it will be much less as the border snakes along rivers, through private property, and difficult terrain. One notable obstacle: There are at least a half dozen railroad border crossings, and I am curious to see how those are handled. Will there be a giant lock like the Panama Canal that opens up to allow freights to pass? Back to dimensions, I’ve read that the average height would be 20-35 feet, but possibly as high as 80 feet in places. And I’ve also seen cost estimates that skew between $8 billion and $12 billion. One thing is certain: Any significant border wall construction project will take a lot of two-bay covered hopper cars and miles of TTX flats.

Let’s look at cement traffic first. Bill Palmer, editor-in-chief of the trade publication Concrete Construction, tells me that he figures at least 1.3 million tons of cement would go into the project (out of an annual national production of 90 million tons). Because cement manufacturing is nationwide, a lot of it would travel a far distance – the kind of hauls that favor railroads. Concrete ready mix plants would be located near unloading sidings. It all sounds like a rail traffic bonanza to me.

So, with coal waning, crude oil diminished, and intermodal still marginal in its profits, maybe the future of U.S. railroading is a pair of ES44s dragging an endless string of dusty old cement covered hoppers through the desert. I would have never guessed it.

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