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By Jeff Stagl, Managing EditorIn 2001, Norma Torres was installed as leader of the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railway LLC (BRG), which serves the Port of Brownsville in Cameron County, Texas. She became the first-ever female president of a short line in the state.Acquired by OmniTRAX Inc. in 2014 per an agreement with the Brownsville Navigation District (BND), the BRG has registered explosive traffic growth and logged a stellar safety record under Torres’ watch. Monthly carloads have ballooned from 300 to more than 3,000 and the short line has not had a Federal Railroad Administration-reportable derailment since 2002. Plus, the BRG has vastly grown another way with Torres at the helm: the number of employees have more than tripled from 11 to 37.The BRG was launched in 1984 when the BND reclaimed port railroad operations from the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The short line operates 45 miles of track in the BND and interchanges with Union Pacific Railroad at Olmito Yard and with Kansas City Southern de Mexico (KCSM) via an intermediate switch with UP at the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge. Both president and chief operating officer of the BRG, Torres will mark her 30th year at the railroad and turn 60 in 2020. Prior to joining the BRG, she served the Port of Brownsville as a bookkeeper for its ship dismantling yard for seven years. When the port closed the yard in 1989, she accepted an offer to join the BRG as a contract laborer.In 1990, Torres joined the railroad as a customer service representative. She was promoted to vice president of administration in 1994, executive vice president in 1998, and president and COO in 2001.Torres grew up near the port, which played an important role in her upbringing because her father was a shrimp fisherman.“I’ve been around the port most of my life,” she says.That familiarity — coupled with her vast accounting and management experience — helped Torres build BRG’s traffic over the past two decades. She played a key role in tapping significant rail opportunities presented by port operations in Brownsville.The port now counts Ternium S.A. and West Plains LLC — which opened a grain mill there in 2017 — as major customers. Plus, Big River Steel plans to soon build a $1.6 billion steel mill and distribution facility at the port that will be served by BRG.
Movements of steel into Mexico predominantly have driven the short line’s traffic surge, says Torres. A major steel producer with operations in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and the United States, Ternium has been a BRG customer for more than 20 years.Steel is shipped from the company’s Brazil steel mill to the port via ocean carriers, then loaded into open gondola cars. BRG moves the steel loads nearly 7 miles to an interchange point with UP, which carries them 6-plus miles to a KCSM interchange at the international bridge. KCSM then transports the gondolas to a Ternium plant near Monterrey, Mexico.The BRG works with the port and Ternium to provide good rail service and negotiate a rate, says Torres.“If Ternium moves more tonnage, then they get a better rate,” she says.The short line handles 30,000 carloads annually for Ternium and expects to boost that total another 10,000 carloads by 2023, says Torres. Annual carloads then are projected to continue increasing through 2025.“We expect this traffic to keep growing over the next five years,” says Torres.Meanwhile, Big River Steel has purchased an 800-acre site at the port for its plant, which will be built within the next several years. The mill will supply steel to automakers in both the United States and Mexico, presenting big traffic potential for the BRG.Currently, freight moved into Mexico accounts for about 85 percent of the short line’s yearly traffic. That figure soon will rise to 90 percent because of burgeoning demand for refined fuels, including diesel, ethanol and jet fuel, says Torres.“It has just boomed, both going to and coming from Mexico,” she says. “Port lessees have added capacity, like holding tanks, to support refined fuels.”Torres’ biggest challenge? Doing what’s necessary to keep pace with explosive traffic growth. That, in part, means upgrading infrastructure and adding motive power.BRG plans to build a unit train track this year and start adding tracks at the port, which will be completed after 2020. Last year, the short line acquired two road locomotives to boost its road unit fleet from three to five.Minding customer service is important, too — meaning daily communications with customers are vital, says Torres.“A lot of it is face-to-face [talks] to strategize,” she says. “We work together with customers to be more efficient.”For example, a customer that has a 12-car spot and needs 50 cars typically wants to be picky about the cars it receives. “But we work with them to take cars on a first-come basis,” says Torres. “It’s different as a short line in the way we focus on customer service. Safety is No. 1, but customer service is close behind it.”
In terms of safety, the BRG has a near spotless record during Torres’ tutelage. The management team works well together to stress safety, she says.“There are forms that employees can fill out if they see something [untoward] — they are the eyes and ears of the railroad,” says Torres.A conductor who was switching cars recently noticed a broken rail that could have caused a derailment, and alerted management. The track had just been inspected a few days beforehand, says Torres.“We had big temperature swings — going from the 70s to the 40s — which puts strain on rails,” she says.The BRG provides rewards, such as gift cards, to employees who submit the most forms in a month.Torres has garnered her own reward of late for the short line’s exceptional performance. OmniTRAX in 2019 presented its Railroad of the Year Award to the BRG. Received by Torres and other BRG executives, the award recognizes OmniTRAX-managed railroads that perform exceedingly well in six core company values, such as trust and teamwork.The BRG reported a nearly 20 percent revenue increase and 25 percent carload gain in 2018. The short line that year set a carload record at 46,043 units, besting the previous high-water mark of 40,113 units achieved in 2006.Torres is invaluable to the short line and holding company, said OmniTRAX board member Kiki Broe in an email. She is a selfless leader and “a rail ambassador whose knowledge and passion match the BRG’s impressive growth,” Broe wrote.“Norma’s diverse internal roles are the foundation of her strategic mindset that attracts new partners — such as Big River Steel — and positions BRG to successfully evolve to meet the needs of industries’ expanded use of rail,” said Broe.Torres, in turn, credits OmniTRAX for providing her railroad with best safety practices and new commercial opportunities. Plus, the BRG’s growth truly is a team effort, she adds.“There are a lot of people behind our success,” Torres says.