SAN ANTONIO — At the 300-acre Southton Rail Yard, a truck maneuvers into a silo that holds 5,000 tons of sand for hydraulic fracturing.
“Pull up about eight feet,” says Chris Colburn, the assistant yard manager at the rail site near Interstate 37 and Loop 410 in southern Bexar County. “Five, four, three, two, one,” Colburn says, counting down the feet as the truck rolls forward. “That will do, driver.”
A chute drops down from the silo, letting sand pour into the truck. Colburn and other workers in an office trailer monitor screens that show everything from video to the climbing weight of sand in the truck — 39,640 pounds so far and quickly approaching its total load of 48,000 pounds.
It’s fewer than five minutes start-to-finish before Colburn says, “Alright, truck. You’re loaded.” The truck exits, making way for another one to enter the silo.
Southton Rail Yard is one of the latest rail sites in South Texas to expand — or appear from scratch in a swath of cleared brush and mesquite — as part of the ripple effect of the Eagle Ford Shale drilling boom.
The site broke ground last July and started moving sand in January with more than 25,000 linear feet of track and four silos that can hold 5,000 tons of sand each for its anchor tenant, Santrol, part of the Ohio-based Fairmount Minerals.
Rail ties and steel stacked up in the middle of the site are ready for the next phase of expansion: another 6,000 feet of track and another six silos to feed the Eagle Ford’s almost insatiable need for sand.
Hydraulic fracturing pumps millions of gallons of water and chemicals at high pressure to break shale and prop open the cracks with sand, letting oil and gas flow up a well.
Rail projects have mushroomed across South Texas, along with the oil boom, and are shipping everything from sand for hydraulic fracturing to crude oil and gravel for well pads and roads.
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter a few years ago predicted that the Eagle Ford could be the state’s biggest single economic development project in history. “Not to brag on myself too much, but my prediction was pretty accurate,” Porter said Wednesday at an event at the rail park.
But Porter also said that rail projects like Southton help get trucks off the road. Complaints about accidents and road damage from heavy truck traffic are nearly universal among residents in South Texas.
One rail car carries as much as four tractor trailers. And even though the rail doesn’t eliminate the need for trucking, it reduces the amount of driving needed.
Other rail new rail projects include the 400-acre Alamo Junction Rail Park, which held a grand opening in April off Old Corpus Christi Road in Elmendorf. That park, developed by National Property Holdings and Rail Logix, interchanges with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad lines.
Just south of Three Rivers off U.S. 281, Live Oak Railroad opened late last year with San Antonio-based Howard Energy Partners as an equity partner.
Among the South Texas rail yards adding track to accommodate shale business are Hondo Railway LLC, Port San Antonio’s East Kelly Railport, Gardendale Railroad Inc. in La Salle County and the Texas, Gonzales & Northern Railway Co. near Harwood in northern Gonzales County.
County Judge Nelson Wolff toured Southton Rail Yard last week and said it represents a long-term opportunity for to bring more companies to the county. While Southton designed and opened the site with Santrol in mind, it’s now marketing itself to other energy companies that need rail access.
“It gives you a close-up view of how big the Eagle Ford is,” Wolff said.
The $54 million project, served by the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads, has about 50 employees so far, but CEO Kevin Bowen said he expects the site will need 30 to 40 more workers by the end of this year.
Steve Waters of USAA Real Estate Co., a member of the executive committee of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, called the Eagle Ford a magnet. “We’ll accept the assist that comes with geology and geography,” Waters said.