One week after it began laying off hundreds of managers and giving furloughs to 2,300 employees due to slumping cargo traffic, Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad is starting to shut down rail projects, including its active project in San Antonio to build a mile-long siding track at the site of the so-called “Ghost Tracks” on the near-Southside close to Mission Espada.
Union Pacific had obtained a City permit to shut down portions of Shane and Villamain roads for part of August and the entire month of September to build the second track that would have allowed passing trains to avoid moving to other tracks miles outside the city limits to await a clear track. Increasing frequency of train traffic, a Union Pacific spokesman said at the time, led to the decision to build the siding track. Union Pacific put the cost of the project at $11 million.
(Read more: Say Goodbye to the Ghost Tracks…At Least for Now)
Halfway through the project, however, the 1.5-mile stretch of Villamain Road was ghostlike Tuesday morning, with Union Pacific and contract crews gone from along the new track path and most heavy equipment removed. Signage closing the road to through traffic remained. A sizable work crew was busy removing the newly installed second set of tracks and restoring the roadway where Shane and Villamain Roads meet at the so-called “Ghost Tracks” crossing.
Jeff DeGraff, Union Pacific’s director of corporate relations and media, said the work should be completed in advance of the Oct. 1 deadline for reopening the roads and the crossing to vehicle and bike traffic.
“The project is being postponed, it isn’t being canceled,” DeGraff said. “We expect the project to restart sometime next year.”
Ivan Jaime, Union Pacific’s director of public affairs in San Antonio, informed City officials of the company’s decision to stop the project on Monday. Jaime was traveling and unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
Union Pacific is wrestling with a reduction in cargo traffic nationwide, which a spokesman said does not necessarily mean reduced activity in the Eagle Ford Shale play in South Texas. In an August interview, Jaime said increased rail traffic into San Antonio from the Southside was due to activity in the oil and gas fields. He cited the development of the $54 million Southton Rail Yard on Southton Road between Center Road and Salado Creek.
Southton Road is the most heavily trafficked road on the city’s most popular cycling route for riders continuing south of the Missions to I-37 and on to Elmendorf and other area municipalities. Heavy truck traffic coming to and from the railyard, transporting loads of sand and other materials to Eagle Ford Shale drilling sites, has grown rapidly in recent years. Southton Road itself has been undergoing major road improvements for months, narrowing the right of way for vehicle and bike traffic in both directions. There are no bike lanes on Southton Road.
City workers placed signage along the detour route from Graf Road and on South Presa Street to slow traffic and allow cyclists to proceed south, but the number of cyclists using the detour has fallen steadily amid concerns over the safety of riding on South Presa with heavy traffic and no bike lanes.
Now it appears the traditional cycling route past Mission San Juan will be opened by the weekend or early next week.
*Top image: Workers clean up a work site at the “Ghost Tracks.” Photo by Robert Rivard.