WASHINGTON -- Cargo terminals at Port Houston, the largest import/export gateway for vehicles on the Texas Gulf coast, opened for business Friday after the U.S. Coast Guard gave the go-ahead for ships to navigate the Houston Ship Channel.
Port Houston is a growing terminus for auto imports, handling 85,499 vehicles shipped by water in 2016. Volkswagen operates a major processing center on port property that delivers more than 120,000 vehicles to dealers in Texas and nearby states, but much of its volume includes vehicles produced in Mexico and delivered to the port by rail.
Meanwhile, railroads continue to face operational challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Repair crews for all three Class I railroads are fixing tracks and signals, and inspecting bridges so trains can run in all areas. Freight railroads have been rerouting trains in some cases to keep customers' shipments moving.
Kansas City Southern's network remains shutdown between Laredo, on the Mexican border, and Houston, according to the company's website.
Union Pacific, the other primary cross-border carrier, said it has completed some repair work on its network in the Houston region and is working to complete repairs on the line between Houston and San Antonio so direct train service can resume. The company said it is now accepting new bookings in some parts of the Houston area.
BNSF Railway said crews are making progress restoring service and facility operations in the Houston area and southeastern Texas. Service was restored in Houston last night, as well as major parts of Galveston. The company said its Houston Automotive yard is now open and has begun unloading trains.
"Trains that are currently staged will be ready to move as blocked routes are cleared and destinations are able to receive. We continue to re-route or divert as much traffic as possible around the area until flood waters recede and storm damaged lines can be repaired," BNSF advised customers.
Although transportation facilities are beginning to open, officials advise that road closures in the region may impede access to some locations.
The nearby Texas ports of Galveston and Freeport reopened Thursday and received their first car carriers since shutting down because of Hurricane Harvey. A handful of roll-on/roll-off, or "ro/ro," vessels parked offshore to discharge vehicles, according to logistics officials at the two ports.
Port Freeport, south of Houston, was largely untouched by the storm because it has a protected approach, as well as storm levees with good drainage. The area picked up only about 15 inches of rain compared to several feet further inland, port authority officials told Automotive News.
A Hoegh Autoliners vessel docked Thursday at the auto terminal, company spokeswoman Safia Reddy said via email. General Motors is the primary user at Port Freeport. The company exports Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes, GMC Yukons and Cadillac Escalades made at its Arlington, Texas, plant, to the Middle East.
It also uses the port to import the Chevy Trax and Buick Encore crossovers from South Korea, said Jason Miura, Port Freeport's business development manager. The Hoegh vessel has a mix of "high and heavy" cargo (i.e. heavy machinery) from the Far East and offloaded about 160 GM vehicles from Korea, said Anthony Vrban, vice president of operations for Horizon Terminal Services, Hoegh's terminal operating arm
Port Galveston, which is northeast of Houston, also escaped significant damage, interim port director Peter Simons said. High wind drove a lot of water out of Galveston Bay, which allowed more water to drain into the bayous, he explained.
Although parking areas at the two vehicle processing centers at the east end of the port were flooded, no vehicles were damaged because they were moved to higher ground before Harvey hit, he said. Galveston is the main Gulf port used by BMW and Mini. The terminal has only been in operation for 18 months and handled about 18,000 vehicles last year. A facility on the west end of the port is used to export late-model used vehicles to West Africa.
Port Houston last year inaugurated a new auto terminal to handle vehicles for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Autos are prepared for dealer delivery by Auto Warehousing Co. The building where cars are accessorized has a few small puddles inside, Co-President Ben Seher said, but otherwise looks ready to go based on camera footage. The facility has power and the computer systems are working. All vehicles were moved off the dock and delivered before the storm to dealers in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana within a 500-mile radius.
The terminal has handled about 17,000 vehicles (the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, Fiat 500X, and Fiat 500 L) in 2016, since opening late last year, Seher said.