This week we travel south with the World’s Greatest Hobby tour to Houston. And judging from the rail action down here, it certainly does seem that everything is bigger in Texas!
Today Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern and BNSF all call on Houston with yards and lines scattered about the city. The scene here however was once much more colorful with lines from the Rock Island, Missouri Kansas and Texas, Southern Pacific and Ft Worth and Denver and many others all coming together in town.
Like Pittsburgh is to steel and Detroit to automotive traffic, Houston is a major hub for the oil and chemical industries and the freight yards around here show it. Tank cars and covered hoppers of all shapes and sizes dominate the consists of the local freights. Traffic originating here on the Texas “Chemical Coast” has direct outlets to the north, east and west via the network of lines radiating out of the city.
Serving many local industries along both sides of the shipping channel is the Port Terminal Railroad Association. Formed in 1924, this terminal road handles the delivery / pick up to many local customers and connects them with each of the three major interstate carriers. This gives each of these customers access to whichever railroad can offer the best rates / service on their products without each road having to send its own tracks or even trains into the congested port area. Operations like this in Houston and elsewhere make tempting model railroad subjects for those interested in switching and operations.
Showing just how much times have changed, while the PTRA connects with all three major rail lines today, in 1924 it worked with 18. The names and number of companies on the map have been redrawn many times since rails first came to the city in 1851, but Houston has always prized railroads as part of its character.
The seal of the city first had the likeness of a locomotive included in 1840 – 11 years before one ever came to town! And today, while passenger trains no longer call on Union Station downtown, the headhouse survives as part of the new home for the Houston Astros.
From the early days until 1961, Texas law required the railroads serving Houston, and operating anywhere within state borders, to be headquartered in Texas. Consequently even as mergers began, many of the familiar names operating into town actually did so as other corporate entities.
While chemical and oil traffic may be the most common commodities on Houston rails today, with its busy port you’ll find an amazing variety of other industries and rail cars coming through town. Grain, finished autos, food products, steel, and of course intermodal containers filled with all kinds of merchandise are all plentiful. The freight car fan will have no trouble catching a great variety of equipment types, road names and paint schemes on a visit to the city.