Texas ports handle ships, railroads fix lines after Hurricane

Texas ports handle ships, railroads fix lines after Hurricane

Members of the US Coast Guard examine and repair navigational aids in the waters around Houston.

More ships are calling Houston-area ports and railroads are working to restore service as import-export activity continues to recover from Hurricane Harvey’s floods that continue in much of southeast Texas.

Railroads said they expect soon to open key routes and switching points in and around Houston, where the port’s container and breakbulk terminals reopened Friday. Port Houston said its Bayport and Barbours Cut container terminals would operate and handle ships and trucks on the Labor Day holiday. The port said free storage time for containers that were in port Aug. 25 would be extended to Sept. 5.

The US Coast Guard (USCG) expanded the section of the Houston Ship Channel that has been reopened to ship traffic. Ships now can operate during daylight hours at maximum drafts of 37 feet up to Mitchell’s Point, near ExxonMobil’s big Baytown refinery.

Previously, the channel was open only to Morgan’s Point, just upstream from the Barbours Cut container terminal. Strong currents from flood runoff are restricting vessel traffic on the upper channel, including most breakbulk terminals.

Maximum allowable drafts are 37 feet at Galveston and Texas City and 33 feet at Port Freeport, the USCG said. Normally, all of those ports and Houston have drafts of 45 feet. Officials said draft restrictions may be eased as the US Army Corps of Engineers completes channel surveys.

Corpus Christi, the first port affected when Harvey hit land on Aug. 25 as as Category 4 hurricane, handled its first ships since the storm on Thursday. The USCG said traffic would be limited to daylight hours with 43-foot maximum draft.

The reopening of terminals, repairs to rail lines, and moves toward more normal vessel operations are important steps in untangling supply chains twisted by Hurricane Harvey and its torrential rains.

Flooding and rescues continued Friday at Port Arthur and Beaumont, where the storm made a final landfall and dumped historic amounts of rain on southeast Texas before moving inland. The USCG said those breakbulk and bulk ports were closed to all but emergency traffic.

Houston is expected to have a busy week of container ship traffic as carriers resume regular calls on services that diverted ships to other ports during Harvey’s aftermath.

Freeport and Galveston each received a call by an auto carrier, and a Mediterranean Shipping Co. container ship docked at Freeport on Friday. Several other vessels have called private oil and chemical docks in the area, and Galveston has been handling cruise ships that were diverted to other ports.

Railroads are working to restore service in the area, but are dealing with new floods in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. In addition to repairing washed-out bridges and track, railroads must inspect roadbeds for excess moisture that weakens tracks’ load-bearing capability. There’s no firm estimate on when full service will be restored.

Nevertheless, the railroads reported progress. “Union Pacific’s freight rail service in the Houston area is coming back online,” the carrier said in a customer advisory.

Union Pacific said its interchange of railcars between Houston’s Port Terminal Railroad was scheduled to resume Friday, and that it expected to resume service on its Baytown branch, which serves refineries, next week. The railroad said it had completed repairs on tracks between Houston and San Antonio, and between Houston and Navasota, Texas, providing another route toward Bryan, Texas.

“One of our top priorities is to restore our east-west lines, which will allow us to move trains directly between Houston, Texas, and Beaumont,” and to eastern Louisiana and points beyond, Union Pacific said.

BNSF Railway reported “significant progress” on reopening closed lines, and has reopened its Pearland intermodal and automotive terminal in south Houston. BNSF also has begun accepting some import containers at  Los Angeles/Long Beach for delivery to Houston when tracks reopen.

“Trains that are currently staged will be ready to move as blocked routes are cleared and destinations are able to receive,” BNSF said in an advisory. The railroad said it continues to reroute or divert as much traffic as possible around flooded areas, but that routes were open to central Texas and through San Antonio, including trains bound for Mexico through BNSF’s eagle Pass border crossing.

Contact Joseph Bonney at joseph.bonney@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @JosephBonney.