El Paso and Juarez Plan Transit Link

» Project would span international boundary, but it’s unclear how immigration law would be upheld.

Counselors in both El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico agreed this week to support the creation of a fixed-corridor transit line connecting their two cities. A new line, probably rail, could use existing bridges and track to reinforce a link that tens of thousands of people cross today in automobiles or by foot. An hour-long wait is common for Mexicans attempting to enter the United States. Other than speeding movement, however, there are few specifics offered about the project, which seems more of a pipe dream than a serious proposal.

The project’s ambition brings to mind the still-born effort to stage the 2016 Summer Olympics in San Diego and neighboring Tijuana. In that case, a local attempt at bi-national unity was superseded by higher level administrators who feared the logistical and political problems inherent in trying to run a Games in two different countries. It is not surprising that the San Diego Trolley terminates blocks from the international border, but goes no further. How would border crossings be arranged? How could illegal trafficking be prevented?

These same issues will probably prevent any El Paso-Juarez link from being built. The United States and Mexico have closed borders and a rail line connecting border cities would be difficult to build and even harder to operate. At the international crossing, customs officers would have to check the papers and baggage of every passenger on board, a time-consuming and invasive process well-known to anyone who’s ever taken a train between the U.S. and Canada. Riders would either have to leave the train or be questioned one-by-one on board by immigration officers. These procedures would eliminate many of the speed advantages of constructing a new transit link.

If the goal of a public transportation connection between two countries that don’t have open borders seems unrealistic, it at least says something about the openness of the people who live in the affected areas and their hope for better international relations. As long as prominent American commentators and policymakers remain antagonistic in reference to any relationship with Mexico, people will be waiting hours to cross the border with no rail option for decades to come.

Proposed Juarez Rail Line MapUpdate, 1 October

The El Paso Times provides more details on the Juarez-El Paso project, demonstrating that the City of Juarez’s primary interest is in building a new line within Mexico, from the municipality’s airport, through downtown, to the border. A connection over the existing bridge into downtown El Paso is a future possibility, but only if U.S. customs officials approve the use of the link, with the problems discussed above and all. The project could be in service by 2013 if the $120 million corridor can compile enough financial and political support.

This information adds a realistic note to this idea for a new transit service: instead of emphasizing the border crossing as the important element of this line, the project’s main goal will be to get people from the south side of the city to the border, where they will be able to cross by foot into El Paso’s center city, which is just a few blocks away.

Juarez officials also hope to eventually connect their city with the proposed Denver-El Paso commuter rail link, though that project’s future depends on the release of federal stimulus funds, something that is in no way guaranteed.

Image above: from the El Paso Times

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Anders

    One option for border control could be a checkpoint in a dedicated terminal building on either side of the line (probably Mexico’s). That’s how the Badischer Bahnhof in Basel, Switzerland works — the station is considered German territory, and to exit the platform areas, one must pass through Swiss controls. Granted, the situation between Germany and Switzerland is very, *very* different than that between the U.S. and Mexico, but the system could work. (More on Badischer Bahnhof at http://bit.ly/Z4ain). Have people exit and board again on the other side. It sounds a bit silly, but it’s better than having no real transit options at all.

  • Is it really any more inefficient for a team of inspectors to check the papers of a group of people on a train than it is for them to inspect individual cars? The time an individual vehicle is being inspected would be higher with a train, obviously, but you wouldn’t be waiting in a line of cars at the border, so it may actually even out.

  • Rob

    I like Anders idea. Essentially, creating something akin to what you see at an international airport — More specifically a Canadian airport where US customs are executed there before individuals head into a sterile area that is considered America for transit purposes. I think this is something that might work…

  • EngineerScotty

    There are lots of places in the world where trains pass through non-open borders. When that occurs, travelers have to endure customs formalities–whether at the border crossing, or at an international terminal at the destination.

    There are ways to expedite customs formalities for “trusted” passengers, of course, though one difficulty is that when travelers travel on a single bulk vehicle (whether a bus, plane, or train)–unless the service very frequent, everyone has to wait for everyone else to clear customs. If it’s a frequent service, with limitations on baggage–a transit line with no baggage service which runs every 30 minutes or so–then expedited passengers might leave customs on an earlier train than non-expedited passengers (or those who are found to have commited customs violations of some sort).

  • John

    That’s how things work with the Eurostar. In London, you have to go through French border control before you get to the platform, which is sealed off from the rest of the station. And that’s it – no onboard delays, and you just walk straight into Paris (or wherever) upon arrival. Presumably they could even have some sort of fast-track system for frequent crossers, just as there is (was?) between the US and Canada. And if expected wait times were pretty clear, you’d even know how long before your trip you needed to check in. (Eurostar is generally 30 minutes minimum, but drops to 10 minutes for exec-type pass holders).

  • John

    Oops – another commenter squeaked in before me. I was following on from Rob’s comment. The ideal is to deal with all the formalities at the departure station. It might mean some people miss the train if they have difficulties getting through border control but they’d have no impact on the rest of the passengers reaching their destination in the time scheduled.

  • Woody

    The FOX report was a bit garbled, referring to commuter rail, where they probably mean light rail or even streetcars. There used to be a streetcar line between the two cities, and ever since it stopped running there’s been talk of reviving it.

    The two downtowns are very close, walking distance if you are broke, and many thousands of Mexicans cross every day to shop and work (many have the papers to work legally) in El Paso. Few gringos cross nowadays, due to the drug-induced terror and corruption besetting most Border towns and especially Juarez, where hundreds of women have been murdered in a wave of unsolved crimes.

    Meanwhile El Paso’s downtown has suffered as malls and big box stores have attracted middle-class Mexicans with cars and spending money. Efforts are underway to rejuvenate the area, which will require eminent domain actions against some commercial buildings with slumlord owners.

    Already a grand old movie palace has been remade into a theater for touring Broadway shows, music acts, etc. A Doubletree hotel has opened on the framework of a motel that had closed for years. But something more is needed to attract back those Mexican shoppers.

    I can’t see trams actually crossing through much territory on the other side of either border. Recognizing the quantity of contraband that is seized from cars and trucks, the Drug Enforcement Agency concerns would make that notion problematic.

    I could envision streetcars running to a meeting point. The streetcar from Juarez could take people to the pedestrian bridge over the mighty Rio Grande — a crossing about a block long over a few feet of water. The El Paso streetcar could pick them up on the other side.

    The riders would become pedestrians and be processed through Immigration just as they are today. That would eliminate the inevitable delays in the schedules if each streetcar and all its passengers had to wait for onboard inspections and searches to be completed.

    El Paso is a growing Sun Belt city with a growing bus system, with a number of strong destinations for a transit system. Downtown has office buildings and courthouses, museums and a convention center. Older close-in neighborhoods have good density. The local campus of the University of Texas is big and getting bigger, and the UTEP teams pull large crowds into the Haskins arena and Sun Bowl. Also, several large malls along I-10, an industrial area and several districts filled with warehouses serving the maquiladora factories on the other side, and a close-in airport. The Army’s desert warfare training center at Fort Bliss, is one of (or is it THE?) largest bases in the country.

    And not to forget a century-old train station that could welcome more trains on the Sunset Limited route, commuter rail from Las Cruces about 45 miles away, and a hoped-for Front Range route to Albuquerque, Denver, and Cheyenne.

    However, and excuse my saying so, but with any involvement of the Mexican governments, this cross-border streetcar will probably be done manana. And I remind readers that the word is correctly understood not as meaning “tomorrow” but rather as “not today.” The Americans might get their side of it done sooner, or not.

  • There are some interesting heat maps of the El Paso metro at http://www.el-paso-home.com that may shed some light on demographic and real estate trends in El Paso for readers not familiar with the area

  • alexjonlin

    They could just do customs at the station in Downtown El Paso, as that would likely be the only station in El Paso since it’s really close to the border.
    And why are they talking about the Denver to El Paso HSR as “commuter rail” or an “extension of the RailRunner?” It doesn’t make any sense. That corridor is hundreds of miles long. I think people don’t understand the difference between the RailRunner and a long-distance train.

  • Seth

    As jfruh alluded to, customs take much less time for those who are on foot than in a car. I’ve had minimal delays every time I fly internationally, but every time I cross by car into Canada, I endure inspections and delays.

  • okie

    There was a trolley line between El Paso and Juarez for over 70 years, so it’s not as if this proposal were for something totally novel: http://www.epcc.edu/nwlibrary/borderlands/14_el_paso_trolley.htm

    There’s a good photo of the international trolley in operation at http://www.flickr.com/photos/romanherdez/3796458913/

  • Nathanael

    Seems likely this will end up as a “get off at the border and line up in Customs” arrangement. Which would still be a good deal for Juarez.

    They might convince the US to build a sealed Customs portal on the US side of the bridge, so that the entire train line is in “Mexican territory”.

  • Woody

    Alexjonlin asks “Why are they talking about the Denver to El Paso HSR as “commuter rail” or an “extension of the RailRunner?” … That corridor is hundreds of miles long. I think people don’t understand the difference between the RailRunner and a long-distance train.”

    Some do understand, some don’t. But everybody who has heard about RoadRunner knows that’s been a great success, with ridership nicely outstripping the forecasts, and a load of good publicity for passenger rail.

    “Extending RoadRunner” is full of the positive. But “a new Amtrak route” not so much.

    And “HSR” is probably somewhere in between those extremes in the pubic mind, and few without a passport really knowing what it means. (Do we know what it means here at The Transport Politic? Is 125 mph Harrisburg-Philly a solid step toward true HSR or a waste of money and effort? I don’t know if we settled that!)

    So when New Mexico politicians propose extending RoadRunner, they may know exactly what they mean, but they’re just saying, “Let’s do more successful passenger rail.”

    Of course, a regular Amtrak train could be not that much different from an extended RoadRunner. The corridor is hundreds of miles long, and most of it is empty. I see only three stops between El Paso and
    the south end of the current RoadRunner route.

    At the southern end, however, the route might easily support a clone of RoadRunner. Las Cruces, the second largest metro in N.M., is within the orbit of El Paso — watching the same broadcast TV, using the ELP airport, etc. The Interstate is clogged with both east-west traffic on I-10 and north-south truck traffic via Juarez. That stretch of irrigated river valley is intensively farmed and densely populated — it recalls the Nile Valley with desert on either side. And with UTEP at one end at NM State at the other, a ‘RoadRunner South’ line would be almost a college shuttle.

    Making that stretch of ROW workable for passenger rail could be a big job. Many grade crossings would be difficult to eliminate, because farmer Brown and farmer Moreno work fields on both sides of railroad. But once beyond Las Cruces, getting up to “Amtrak speed” with stops in Truth or Consequences and Socorro should not be so much work. And then you’re on the RoadRunner tracks from Belen into Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

    Our friends over at unitedrail.org always favor expanding Amtrak’s system of long distance trains, arguing that every station and every link adds more passengers to the totals on the trains on the other routes. A Front Range route from El Paso to Albuquerque to Denver would surely do that, linking three east-west routes.

    I expect a new Front Range train running “Amtrak speed” up to Cheyenne would be as successful (or not) as the other long distance trains. To me, with at least two frequencies a day, that would be worth doing. And maybe that’s all that Gov Bill Richardson, Cong Harry Teague, Cong Silvestre Reyes, and the others in NM and El Paso are looking for in the next 10 or 20 years.

    Colorado might be ready for HSR running Pueblo-Colo Springs-Denver-Ft Collins-(maybe)Cheyenne much sooner, but the two goals should not be mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, talking about “extending RoadRunner” gives cover to the New Mexico delegation when they vote for the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, etc.

  • jon

    the tunnel bus between detroit and windsor is worth pointing out for being similar. it loops around downtown detroit goes in the tunnel then loops around downtown windsor then back in the tunnel to detroit. it stops at the customs check, lets passengers off to go inside the building and then picks them up on the other side using the same bus. not sure what happens if one of the passengers is held up by customs, whether they are left for the next bus or the bus waits.

    granted this is the canadian border, certainly a big difference than the mexican border.

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