I was recently invited, along with other border stakeholders, by Union Pacific Railroad on a train ride of the El Paso-Santa Teresa corridor. As a group, we met early in UP’s downtown El Paso rail yards to board the special UP passenger train with engines at opposite ends.
I have been up and down the El Paso-southern New Mexico line countless times in private vehicles, usually rushing to my next meeting or taking clients to meetings. However, the tranquility of the train ride on tracks that skirt the U.S.-Mexico border provided me with a new perspective of the region.
Pulling out of downtown El Paso heading west, the size of the El Paso-Juárez metroplex becomes clear. Building after building stretches out in all directions. While El Paso is considered a big southwestern U.S. city, Juárez is even bigger. Industrial buildings and houses are everywhere. Dwellings even climb the Sierra de Juárez mountains that join El Paso, Juárez, and southern New Mexico.
It also became apparent to me how landlocked both UP and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad are by having their rail yards located in downtown El Paso. There is little or no room for either company to expand in order to accommodate the growth that rail cargo has been experiencing. The need for space to grow was the major factor in UP launching its $400 million Santa Teresa project to build a diesel refueling station and intermodal yards for its trains.
Leaving the downtown El Paso-Juárez region, we traveled past the no-longer-functional ASARCO smelter plant with its chimneys reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, towers which have long been a major part of the El Paso skyline. These towers, along with the rest of the smelter plant, will be demolished by next year. Surrounding the plant was the old Smeltertown, in which generations of workers and their families lived, worked and died. Decades-old buildings are a stone’s throw from the border. The ASARCO site looked like an industrial skeleton of years gone by.
A very short distance from ASARCO, we went over the high trestle that towers over the Border Highway and crosses the Rio Grande. I strained to find the spot where Francisco Madero, the father of the Mexican Revolution, camped on the U.S. side of the river while he plotted the overthrow of Mexico’s dictatorship.
Next, we threaded the base of the Sierra de Juárez mountains, covered with jagged rocks and harsh vegetation, which looked like a movie scene in an old “spaghetti Western.” The roughness of the terrain was striking — just as the country-western singer Marty Robbins referenced in his hit, “El Paso,” in which he recounts the story of a young outlaw fleeing from El Paso to the “badlands of New Mexico.”
Coming off the mountain, we dropped in between Anapra, Mexico, on the south and Sunland Park, N.M., on the north. In some places where poverty was prevalent, both sides of the border looked like they could be interchangeable. At times, if it weren’t for the massive border fence separating Mexico and the U.S., I would not have known where Anapra ended and Sunland Park began. Sunland Park looks and feels very much like a Mexican border city.
On either side, I saw young kids playing in dirt fields surrounded by junked cars, broken appliances and trash. I couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for these youngsters who have been dealt a rough hand by being cast into the world by a family living in abject poverty. Are we doing what is necessary today to ensure that these kids have a chance at a better future?
Farther west, we passed the two eighteen-hole golf courses of the Santa Teresa Country Club. Surrounding the golf courses were developments with beautiful houses and manicured lawns, owned by the more affluent demographic sector of the region. Santa Teresa is only a couple of miles from Sunland Park/Anapra, but it might as well be hundreds of miles removed. The differences in the two places are striking.
Climbing the hill heading west, we sliced through the Santa Teresa industrial parks, full of companies churning out supplies for Mexico’s maquiladora industry, or distributing the end products that are manufactured on the other side of the border. The Santa Teresa area is now New Mexico’s second-largest industrial base.
Our final destination point was the site of UP’s new $400 million project, smack-dab in the middle of the desert on a high plateau. Heavy machinery was everywhere, moving dirt to prepare the project along an 11.5-mile stretch of the main UP line. In three years, the build-out will be complete and hundreds of workers and billions of dollars in cargo will be moving on today what is bare desert.
At the end of the train ride, I couldn’t help but feel positive that this new development will bring new opportunities for the youth of our families and give them a chance at a better life in the border region.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at email@example.com.