By Nick Carey and Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) – Major U.S. railroads have warned that it could be a long time before normal operations resume in the Houston area where Tropical Storm Harvey has caused catastrophic flooding.
Closure of rail lines in the grain transport hub and nexus for cross-border traffic with Mexico presents a costly headache for customers ranging from automakers to farmers who use the lines to send ethanol, cereals and auto parts to and from Mexico or to be loaded onto ships.
Union Pacific Corp and Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF Railway, the two leading U.S. railroads, and regional railroad Kansas City Southern have suspended operations in the area affected by the storm.
“We don’t have a historical precedent with this one,” said Thomas Williamson, owner of Florida-based rail broker Transportation Consultants Co. “I expect service to be disrupted anywhere from two to six weeks.”
Union Pacific, the No. 1 U.S. railroad, said that as of midday on Wednesday, sections of track were out of service in 18 of its 28 Houston-area subdivisions, and it was sending traffic along alternate routes through Longview and Dallas.
The railroad said it was using helicopters and drones to inspect track and facilities in areas without road access. And it said workers were reorganizing major rail yards at Settegast, near downtown Houston, and Englewood, including assessing infrastructure, getting trains reassembled and cars back in the yard.
A Midwest-based conductor at the railroad said parts of Union Pacific’s Englewood Yard were flooded as of late Tuesday.
The company, which has been rerouting rail traffic away from Houston, said traffic entering or leaving through the north and east sides of Houston was on hold, and its main line between Houston and San Antonio, to the west, was out of service.
BNSF said in a Tuesday customer announcement that normal train flows in the area were unlikely to resume for “an extended period.”
A spokesman at CSX Corp, the No. 3 U.S. railroad, which has so far been unaffected by Harvey, said on Wednesday it was “closely watching the weather conditions in Louisiana and the southwestern portion of our operating network.”
Loadings of wheat, corn and sorghum onto ships for export have been halted in Texas. And although coastal grain elevators have not been significantly damaged they have been unable to receive supplies.
Archer Daniels Midland Co’s grain elevators remained operational in Corpus Christi and Galveston, Texas, but…