BROWNSVILLE — If railroading wasn’t in Norma Torres’ blood before she went to work for the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railway 30 years ago, you can bet it is now.
Torres, BRG president and chief operating officer, became the first female president of a shortline railroad in Texas history in 2001. As of 2016, the state had 45 such entities, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. BRG connects the port’s tenants to long-haul railroads BNSF, Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern.
On Torres’ watch, BRG has gone from handling 300 rail cars a month to more than 3,000. The number of railroad employees has increased from 11 to 37. Steel is responsible for most of that growth, she said.
“Steel is the biggest commodity at BRG,” Torres said.
Last year BRG moved 41,027 rail cars, the railroad’s second biggest year ever, with 33,344 of those cars going into Mexico — about 60 percent of them carrying steel, she said. Overall and including gasoline, diesel and other bulk liquid cargo, approximately 85 percent of the port’s business goes to Mexico, Torres said.
“We were really busy with our liquid side last year and it’s continuing this year,” she said.
In steel, a company called Ternium is the port’s biggest customer, importing slab, scrap and coil steel, most of it from Brazil, and shipping it to automobile and appliance manufacturers in Mexico, Torres said. She sees BRG’s growth continuing on the strength of steel and liquid cargo, Torres said.
“I think by 2023 our projection is we’ll be moving, if not 60,000 cars a year, then close to 60,000 a year with everything that we see coming,” she said.
The addition of Big River Steel, an Arkansas-based company eyeing the port for a new steel mill, would also boost the port’s and railroad’s fortunes, Torres said.
She first came to the port in 1982 as an office manager for a scrap yard. The job entailed keeping the books as well as managing the office. Torres was in the crowd in 1984 for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly established BRG, never dreaming she’d be in charge of it someday.
She transitioned to the railroad in 1989 as a contract laborer, and was officially hired by BRG as a customer service representative. As Torres was coming in, BRG’s accountant was retiring, and he recommended her for the job based on her scrap yard bookkeeping experience.
“He took it to the board and said, ‘She knows her numbers, let’s give her a chance,’” Torres said. “I worked under him probably six months before he left. They saw I was able to handle the accounting side of the railroad, and they promoted me to accounting.”
Not long after, BRG’s president at the time took a job in Dallas and took his vice president with him. One of Torres’ colleagues was promoted to president and Torres was promoted to vice president. That was in 1994. She took over the top job when her predecessor, Larry Cantu, left the railroad in 2001.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a good challenge,” Torres said. “My success is actually because of the team that works under me.”
More than half of the 35 employees under her have worked at BRG 10 years or longer, she said. In order to learn how the railroad worked, she put on her boots and spent as much time in the yard as possible, leaving the office work for after hours, Torres said.
“I had great teachers,” she said. “The guys outside taught me a lot. In order to learn the operations I had to know not just the inside, I needed to understand how it worked on the outside.”
BRG has enjoyed a stellar safety record on Torres’ watch, with zero non-reportable derailments for 2018-2019 and no Federal Railroad Administration-reportable derailments since 2002. Non-reportable derailments are incidents or accidents of less than $10,700 in monetary value, according to current FRA rules.
In February 2019, Torres received the Railroad of the Year Award from OmniTRAX, which acquired BRG in 2014, at the company’s annual National Leadership Meeting in Denver, Colo. The award is for OmniTRAX-managed railroads that excel in each of six core company values.
It hasn’t always been easy being the only female railroad head in a male-dominated industry, Torres admitted. In spite of that fact — and the long hours — she still loves the job, she said.
“Railroading is a challenge,” Torres said. “You either like it or you don’t like it. Once you like it, it gets in your blood and you’re in.”