Building a community one track at a time

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Picture this: a metal steam-powered machine rumbling across the Rio Grande Valley for the first time and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway building Harvey Houses across the state to accommodate everyone from passengers to railroaders.

In 1880, the railway completed its first line through Valencia County from Albuquerque and it was the start of Belen becoming part of the transcontinental main line.

By 1907, the Belen cut-off, which linked Amarillo to Belen, was completed. The move propelled Belen into a major railroad center in the state and gave the town the nickname “The Hub City.”

More than 100 years later, the railway is still going strong under the renamed BNSF Railway Company.

BNSF averages more than 100 freight trains a day that come through Belen and travel to places such as New York and Chicago.

The Belen rail yard is one of four major corridors in the state of New Mexico, employing about 450 people.

The locomotives, which could weigh upwards of 250,000 pounds, haul everything from grain and automobiles to chemicals and metals.

According to BNSF, each year, the railway hauls enough lumber to build 500,000 homes, enough asphalt to lay a single-lane road four times around the equator and enough coiled steel to lay the unrolled coils end-to-end 12 times between New York City and Seattle.

The railway, which has a total payroll of $87 million, moves more than three million carloads of freight in the state each year.

Last year, BNSF added five miles of double-track rail to allow north and southbound traffic through Abo Canyon, southeast of Belen. The move helped eliminate a major bottleneck so traffic could continuously flow through the area.

The company also announced it would be the first “user” in what is now called the Rancho Cielo Industrial Hub, a 6,000-acre site in Belen that is expected to house a facility complete with industrial spurs where it would likely serve specific manufacturers to be able to transport certain products.

Construction dates for the BNSF project have not been announced.

But Joe Faust, a spokesman for BNSF, said the rail company aims not only to serve big-time companies, but also concentrate efforts on the municipalities employees work and live in.

BNSF is integrated with the community on a number of levels, including donating time and money to the city and its residents.

“We are very concerned about the community and the citizens in areas where we operate,” Faust said. “We believe in having employees who are involved in the community where they work and live.”

Faust said BNSF aims to hire people who play active roles in their communities and who are “good corporate citizens,” who have their ears toward the pulse of the community.

David Renteria is one of those employees.

Renteria, a Rio Communities resident, retired in 2011 from BNSF as a mechanical general foreman at the Belen yard and was instrumental in ensuring that trains came and went without a problem.

During recent years with the company, Renteria was a local spokesman for BNSF at local functions and has been a past president at the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce. He worked at the railroad for more than 40 years.

Renteria oversaw a yard that continues to be a major inspection and fueling facility on the transcontinental line between Chicago and Los Angeles. Some say Belen is a major hub because of the good terrain in the area.

As one of the top three employers in Belen, BNSF has withstood recessions and depressions and is still a strong industrial player in both Valencia County and the state of New Mexico.

“It’s important for the community,” Renteria said.

Dennis Morgan, a retiree who worked in the mechanical department at BNSF, echoed the former foreman’s sentiments. He said the tax base is “pretty doggone good” for the area.

“I think the railroad built Belen,” Morgan said. “Some politicians don’t want to admit it, but without the railroad, Belen wouldn’t be here.”

Local experts say a single train can haul as much as 300 semi-trucks and is essential for those who need to haul agricultural and industrial products.

Renteria said in 2008, the Belen yard averaged 88 trains a day and used 645,000 gallons of fuel for trains that had to make pit stops at the BNSF station. Those stops weren’t always smooth.

Renteria said problems could range from locomotive engine failure to derailments to a trailer leaning on one side or another. Crews would have to scurry around and switch out certain cars to get the train traffic moving again.

“A lot can go wrong in five to 10 minutes,” Renteria said. “There are a lot of potential problems.”

Another railroader compared Renteria to an air traffic controller who must keep services running continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

On average, 450 locomotives are serviced and inspected in Belen everyday in a process that takes just a little more than a half an hour on each inspection. BNSF is second only to the U.S. Navy in diesel fuel consumption, according to Renteria.

Gas must be piped in from El Paso to supplement Belen’s fuel demands.

Renteria said that task wasn’t always easy with only a certain amount of space to operate. Communication is the most important element with workers on different shifts.

During peak season, companies such as UPS expect to have packages delivered on time.

“We (had) contracts,” Morgan said. “Every hour that we were late, we had to pay them.”

Still, Renteria said the BNSF Railway Company strives to keep its community ties.

For instance, the company donated $100,000 that went toward a fire truck for the city of Belen, and in 2010, the company gave $2,500 to help clean-up Anna Becker Park.

Statewide, the company donates $50,000 per year for various causes, according to Renteria.

Renteria, who is currently on the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said BNSF will continue to be a partner in the community.

“Residents in this community should be proud to be involved with one of the top 10 companies in the country,” says Renteria.


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.