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STOCKTON – The Port of Stockton will add more than 22,000 feet of new railroad track over the next year — more than double its current rail capacity. The $7.4 million project will allow the port to handle up to 12 bulk trains per week, up from its current six.
The improvements will be paid for through a loan from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program.
“This sets the port up for long-range development,” said Senior Deputy Port Director Mark Tollini. “Right now we have seen a lot of businesses opting for rail-based transport.”
Each bulk train that comes into the port can be miles long and made up of hundred of cars. The port managed more than 97,000 rail cars last year.
Tollini said that most of the shipments the Port of Stockton manages are “unpackaged” products such as minerals and agricultural products. So-called “high value” containers with items such as finished products are largely shipped through ports in Oakland or Southern California.
“A lot of commodities come in and out by rail,” said Tollini. “Natural gas, ethanol and ag products all go out by rail. It’s grown over the last few years.”
In fact, the port is so busy crews are currently working at 120 percent of the facility’s stated capacity.
“You should never be running at 100 percent of capacity,” said Dave Buccolo, general manager of Central California Traction Company. “It hurts efficiency.”
Central California Traction Company is in charge of getting rail cars that enter the port from railroads like Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and Union Pacific to the various customers at the port. The cars are then either loaded with goods for shipment out or unloaded onto ships for export around the world.
“We do thousands of loaded rail cars (per week) here,” said Buccolo. “We export a lot of minerals and steel products.”
He said the trains come from all over the country, but a large number come from the Midwest and Southwest. He said the new expansion will boost the port’s capacity and add jobs to the local economy.
“We will probably add eight to 10 people over the next five years,” said Buccolo, whose company currently employs 27 people.
Tollini said the new expansion should also help secure dockworkers’ employment and even add to their ranks in the coming years.
“It won’t do much to the administrative staff,” said Tollini. “But I’m sure the dock staff will be increased.”
The added work will likely also lead to more jobs with the rail lines. BNSF and Union Pacific are the two biggest beneficiaries of added rail business in the area.
“I’d guess the railroads will each probably add five to 10 people in the next few years,” said Buccolo. “A lot of the customers [shippers] will also have to add staff.”
While the port is adding the biggest current rail expansion, it is only part of what has been a boom in rail construction in the area during the last decade.
Union Pacific plans to expand and modernize its existing intermodal facility in Lathrop over the next decade. The facility was built in 1993 and will expand from 132 acres to 154 acres. Capacity will increase from 270,000 container lifts [putting containers on or taking them off rail cars] to 730,000.
BNSF announced in February that it plans to add more truck capacity at its intermodal facility in Stockton. The plan is to increase truck and container parking by about 20 percent.
“Rail traffic has tripled or quadrupled here [since the 1980s],” said Buccolo, who has been in the railroad industry for 46 years, including two times in Stockton from 1979 to 1983 and his current tenure which started in 2004. “The port used to do 3,000 cars back in the ‘80s and now there are two intermodal facilities in San Joaquin County.”
The expansion in rail traffic stems from better, cheaper and more efficient methods rail companies use to transport goods.
“We are the most fuel efficient way to transport products,” said Buccolo. “Railroads get about 700 miles per gallon for a ton of freight. It is the most energy efficient way. There is also a shortage of truck drivers.”
San Joaquin County’s rail facilities have been huge aids in helping expand current businesses and lure new business to the area.
“In most places you won’t find an intermodal facility,” said Mike Ammann, president & CEO of the San Joaquin Partnership, an economic development organization. “We have two. If you are a shipper and you are mixing stuff from overseas, you can choose between Union Pacific or Burlington (BNSF). We also have short-haul railroads. So if it is in a unit train, we can move it. All this is really unique.”
That, combined with improvements to infrastructure ranging from the area interstates to improvements at the airport, has helped turn the Valley into a hotbed of shipping opportunities, Ammann said. It has also helped add employment to an area in desperate need of quality jobs.
“These jobs aren’t minimum wage jobs,” said Ammann. “We take it for granted. It’s unique what we can offer now when it comes to selling new business projects. The availability of land, intermodals and the port. You just don’t find that in Sacramento, Modesto or Pleasanton. We are unique in that all this stuff is right here. We have got an economy that is going to run for the next few years. We are prepared for the long awaited recovery. We are ready to rock and roll.”