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Lone Star Rail hits major roadblock

Friday, February 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A top official with the Lone Star Rail District, or LSTAR, said his agency will continue chugging along despite a serious setback that puts its fundamental mission in jeopardy.

On Tuesday, Jerry Wilmoth, Union Pacific’s general manager of network infrastructure, sent a letter notifying LSTAR Chair Sid Covington that the freight rail giant had decided to cancel its ongoing agreements to explore sharing its rail lines with LSTAR between Georgetown and San Antonio.

“UPRR can no longer, in good faith, constrain its growth by the conceptual discussions or previous expressions of interest between the parties,” Wilmoth wrote.

In 2009, Union Pacific and LSTAR agreed to study the feasibility of running passenger trains down Union Pacific’s existing rail line while rerouting freight service to a new line farther east along the corridor.

For six years, that appeared to be the operative plan at LSTAR until Tuesday’s abrupt decision by Union Pacific. On the “Project Overview” page on its website, under a section titled “The Next Wave of Transportation,” LSTAR claims that the “UP right-of-way is almost perfectly suited to passenger service that can bring people right to the region’s major destinations – downtown Austin and San Antonio, a long string of university campuses, tourist attractions, and major employers from Williamson County to Port San Antonio and beyond.”

Faced with losing access to that plum piece of railroad, LSTAR Deputy Executive Director Joe Black told the Austin Monitor on Thursday that he is consoling himself with the knowledge that the district has other “options in our hip pocket.”

Black explained that LSTAR is engaged in an ongoing environmental impact study that requires it to examine a variety of alternatives. Among that slate is the possibility of working with the Texas Department of Transportation to run passenger rail service along I-35. LSTAR could also try to acquire its own right-of-way alongside Union Pacific’s, Black said. However, he acknowledged that those alternatives would be both costly and difficult to negotiate.

Black also said that LSTAR officials are arranging for a meeting with Union Pacific’s top leaders in Omaha, Nebraska, to discuss the company’s decision. On Thursday afternoon, however, Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff didn’t convey much hope that the company would reconsider its decision.

“When the process started 10 years ago, we had concerns and we expressed those concerns,” DeGraff explained. “At this junction, we decided that we don’t see any progress, and we don’t foresee any progress in the future.”

DeGraff explained that Union Pacific’s freight business between Austin and San Antonio has jumped 60 percent in recent years and looks to continue increasing. With that much traffic, the company decided there wouldn’t be a feasible way to share the tracks with a separate passenger rail line. DeGraff said that rerouting freight service on new rail outside of major population centers would cut Union Pacific off from its customers inside those cities.

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