Transbordos offers state-of-art chemical transloading in Mexico

Dec. 1, 2002
FRUSTRATED by interminable delays in the diplomatic efforts to open the US-Mexico border to through truck traffic, some of Mexico's bulk haulers are looking

FRUSTRATED by interminable delays in the diplomatic efforts to open the US-Mexico border to through truck traffic, some of Mexico's bulk haulers are looking for a new approach. Rail transloading — for both liquid and dry bulk cargoes — is an alternative getting a fresh look.

An example: Transbordos Internacionales Mexicanos SA de CV, one of the newest Mexican rail transfer operations to come on line. Situated near San Antonio Tula, a small town in Hidalgo state about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Mexico City, the state-of-the-art facility has focused initially on liquid cargoes, specifically hazardous materials. It was fully operational in mid-October.

“We're very proud of what we've accomplished with this facility,” says Guillermo Berriochoa Lopez, Transbordos chairman. “We've done everything we promised in developing this modern operation, and potential customers see that. We opened with a good core customer base, and we're getting significant inquiries now that Transbordos is operational. We're confident that activity at the terminal will pick up in coming months as more chemical shippers realize what we have built.

“The facility has been handling 15 to 20 railcars a month since it opened, and we hope to average 20 railcars by the end of the year. Our objective is to hit 30 railcars a month by the end of January (2003).

“We designed the San Antonio Tula terminal to serve as a model for the future. We believe that there is a need for state-of-the-art chemical transloading facilities in other parts of Mexico. We're exploring various possibilities for projects that could be done in cooperation with all three of the major privatized railroads in this country.”

Act of frustration

Guillermo Berriochoa adds that he turned to transloading after becoming disgusted with what he sees as the great failure of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — interminable delays in opening the US-Mexico border to free movement of truck traffic. Mexican carriers, such as Berriochoa's own Transportes Inter-Mex, that focused on US-Mexico trade have been hardest hit by the delays.

Speaking at Mexico Transporta 2002 in June, Guillermo Berriochoa said he was tired of fighting for open access to the United States. “We've pulled back and sold off our US trucking assets,” he said. “We've skirted the problem by opening the chemical transloading facility north of Mexico City. We'll use the railroads to avoid US truck restrictions.”

Two years of effort went into making Transbordos a reality. The final result is a transloading facility that is convenient to Mexico City and has the ability to handle a wide range of liquid chemical cargoes. Dry bulk transfer is a future option based on customer demand.

“This facility is configured to handle just about any chemical that can be transported by rail,” Guillermo Berriochoa says. “On the dry side, we believe plastics will offer the best opportunity. But we can transfer just about any dry product.”

The primary chemicals handled at the facility at this time are alcohols, toluene, heptane, and helane. Most of the chemicals being moved through the terminal arrive by rail from the United States. Guillermo Berriochoa also believes Transbordos could prove to be beneficial for Canadian chemical shippers.

Management team

A management team including Guillermo Berriochoa; Miguel Berriochoa González, terminal manager and Guillermo's son; Jose Luis Garcia, director general; Enrique Hernandez, vice-president; Jose Luis Rodriguez, secretary; and Ernesto Vallet Haces, treasurer, directs operation of Transbordos. Ten employees handle the day-to-day transloading activities.

At this time, Transbordos operates 9 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday with a single shift. “We hope to add a second and third shift over the course of the next year or so,” says Miguel Berriochoa. “We'll run 24 hours a day, seven days a week if there is enough business. We serve customers in a 500-kilometer (310-mile) radius, which covers most of the industrial heartland of Mexico.”

Truck transportation of cargoes can be handled by sister company Transportes Inter-Mex. However, customers are given the option of using their own carriers. Rail service is provided by Transportacion Ferroviaria Mexicana (TFM).

A joint venture between Transportacion Maritima Mexicana (TMM) and the Kansas City Southern railway, TFM is a key component in Kansas City Southern's NAFTA service. TFM operates over the Northeast Railway, which was the first of the government-owned railroads to be privatized in Mexico in 1997.

TFM provides the primary rail route in northern Mexico, linking Mexico City with Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, where more than 50% of US-Mexico trade crosses the border. The line also connects major Mexico industrial centers at Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and Guadalajara, Jalisco, and the ports of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, and Veracruz and Tampico, Veracruz. Its 2,661-mile line accounts for 19% of rail in Mexico but carries 40% of the country's total rail cargo.

Although Mexico's rail operations were privatized, the federal government still owns much of the right of way. The 4.8 acres that comprise the Transbordos facility were purchased about a year ago from the federal government.

“We felt that this was an ideal location, because it is just a few miles from the TFM switching yard in Tula de Allende (Hidalgo),” Miguel Berriochoa says. “We have no difficulty shuttling tankcars between the switching yard and our terminal.

“TFM provides daily service to move tankcars in and out of our Transbordos terminal. We also have a Trackmobile for repositioning cars within the facility.”

The site originally had served as a maintenance station for the government-owned rail operation. However, it had been abandoned for about 30 years, and most of the equipment, including rails, had been hauled away. What remained were some of the maintenance buildings and several railcars, all of which have been incorporated into the Transbordos facility.

Construction began once the land purchase was completed, but it was a time-consuming process. The ground had to be prepared, and three sections of track totaling 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) were installed and linked to the main rail line. Total capacity is 75 railcars.

Under the tracks are stainless steel spill pans that are piped for drainage into a concrete containment pit. Roadways alongside the tracks are paved. Running along the track in the transfer area are electrical outlets and lines for nitrogen, compressed air, and steam.

Pumps and compressors for chemical transfer are on small trailers that are moved around the facility by pickup trucks. Both stainless and carbon steel pumps are available.

Chemical storage

Next to the tracks, construction workers dug a containment pit that holds six 100,000-liter (26,420-gallon) carbon steel chemical storage tanks that are mounted horizontally. Besides containment, the storage area was fitted with a fire suppression system. There is room for more storage tanks, which will be arranged in blocks of six, according to Jose Luis Garcia.

A tank trailer wash rack in another area of the terminal can handle any of the chemicals transloaded at the facility. The wash operation is self-contained, and wastewater is hauled away for treatment and disposal. Cleaning equipment includes two boilers (60 and 50 horsepower) that provide steam and hot water. The boilers also generate the steam used for heating tankcars.

The perimeter of the rail transfer facility was fenced for security, and plenty of outdoor lighting was installed for both safety and security. A communication tower was constructed to provide radio and cellular telephone access.

Refurbished railcars

In addition to the new construction, considerable effort went into refurbishing buildings and railcars that were already present. An old tankcar was turned into a decorative fixture that now greets anyone entering the transloading facility.

Four old boxcars were turned into a laboratory, kitchen, training classroom, offices, and break room. One of the offices will be used by a company providing customs preclearance services.

A two-story house on the site was remodeled to serve as offices on the ground floor. The second floor now serves as dormitories for workers who spend several days at a time at the facility.

The old maintenance building is being used to store product hoses and other equipment. Workers are still in the process of turning the old telegraph office into an infirmary.

The refurbished railcars and buildings are all that seem to reflect the past. In every way, Transbordos stands out as one of the most sophisticated rail transfer operations in North America.

Mexican truckers get green light from US

Seven years behind schedule, the US government finally opened US highways to Mexican truckers wanting to operate beyond the 20-mile commercial zones along the US-Mexico border. The decision comes nearly a year after President George W Bush promised to do so in compliance with a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The action was taken November 27.

However, opponents of the Bush Administration action wasted little time in requesting an emergency stay. The petitioners, including the Teamsters, Public Citizen, and the Environmental Law Foundation, asked the Ninth Court of Appeals in San Francisco to stop the US government from granting Mexican truckers approval to operate beyond the 20-mile commercial zones. The groups allege that the Bush Administration failed to complete a full review of the impact the move will have on air quality in the United States.

The Mexican government welcomed Bush's action in a statement released November 28. However, US regulations that were adopted specifically to address Mexican carrier qualifications were criticized. Mexican officials argued that Canadian carriers don't face the same requirements. Earlier this year, federal officials in Mexico said that they reserved the right to adopt retaliatory regulations on US truckers.

Immediately after Bush lifted the moratorium on Mexican trucks, Transportation Secretary Norman Y Mineta announced that he had directed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to act on the 130 applications for US authority received thus far from Mexico-domiciled truck and bus companies. US officials said approximately half of these carriers are ready for safety audits.

In addition to the 130 Mexican carriers wanting to operate throughout the United States, more than 850 have applied for provisional certificates of registration to operate in the border commercial zones. FMCSA has issued provisional certificates to 459.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.