A train on a boat? It happens all the time in the Port of Mobile

Outside of a child’s imagination, there aren’t many places you’ll find a train on a boat. The Port of Mobile is one of them, and Wednesday was a big day for one of the port’s most unusual shipping services.

Note: This story first appeared in May in The Lede, a digital news publication delivered to our subscribers every morning. The events described here took place on Wednesday, May 18. Go here to subscribe to The Lede.

CG Railway has been described as “a rather unconventional railroad bridge” that happens to be 900 miles long, stretching from Mobile to the port of Coatzacoalcos in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The “bridge” consists of two purpose-built ships, and Wednesday was a very rare day when they were both in the same port rather than passing each other somewhere out in the Gulf of Mexico.

It also was a day of much fanfare, as the Cherokee got a long-delayed christening. The mood among company, city and port officials was ebullient — though CG Railway President Hoffman Lijeron admitted he also was antsy to get on with regular business.

“Today we have the opportunity to share with you one of the most emblematic and captivating rituals in the maritime industry, the vessel christening ceremony,” he said. “As you can see, we have our two new state-of-the-art ferries docked in Mobile today, which makes this day even more unique. In a typical week, after performing their loading and unloading operations, one ship is departing from Mobile while the other should be departing from the port of Coatzacoalcos. We actually orchestrated this particular situation so you have the chance to see the incredible capacity that we are offering to our existing and prospective customers.

“Having said that, I want to give some peace of mind to our customers,” he said. “The Cherokee, as soon as we’re done with this event, the Cherokee is going to start loading, and after that we’re going to unload the Mayan … Very importantly, we are sticking to a schedule of sailings as published one month ago.

May 18, 2022

Cargo loading specialist Gregory Gordon, standing on the lower deck of the Cherokee, talks about the complex process of loading rail cars on the ship. Cars are held down with large turnbuckles, which hook into holes in rails like the one at his feet, and also are steadied with jackstands to prevent rocking. Additionally cars have different lengths, heights and weights, so care is taken with the placement of specific cars.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com

“We do not do christenings for a living, right?” Lijeron said, drawing laughs from his audience. “That’s not what we do on a regular basis. We move railcars for a living, so I really need these two ships to get moving.”

The story of this unusual shipping line goes back a little more than 20 years. Aside from a brief period when it ran to the Port of New Orleans, Mobile has been its U.S. terminus. International Shipholding Corp. ran the service all that time with two older vessels, the Banda Sea and the Bali Sea. By 2017, the company was working through bankruptcy and the two ships — which were a small portion of its asset portfolio — were showing their age.

Erik Fabrikant, CEO of Seacor Holdings said that Seacor acquired the line in 2017 knowing full well that some serious investment was needed. “Service was not great,” he said. “In fact it was pretty poor by our standards.”

Seacor partnered with Genesee & Wyoming, a rail company that specializes in short-line and railroads. It owns or leases more than 100 of them worldwide, including the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway. Seacor and G&W partnered up to revitalize CG Railway — which included ordering two newer, larger vessels to replace the older rail ferries.

They were built in China during the pandemic, which posed major challenges. The new ships finally entered service in late 2021, but the pandemic, particularly the surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant, delayed the fanfare of a christening until now.

Lijeron said the company’s three goals were to increase capacity, speed and reliability. The new vessels, which he described as “Two largest and most sophisticated rail ferries in the world,” accomplish that, he said. They can carry 18% more rail cars per trip — up to 136 versus about 115 for the older ships — and they slash the transit time from five days to less than three. (Lijeron said that by comparison, moving the same cars by land would take at least a week and possibly more, depending on complications at the border.)

Michael Manzano, captain of the Cherokee, said he certainly appreciated the upgrade. “Oh, big difference,” he said. “Faster, wider, bigger.”

May 18, 2022

Capt. Michael Manazo stands on the bridge of the rail ferry Cherokee. Comparing the ship to it’s predecessor, he said “Oh, big difference. Faster, wider, bigger.”Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com

Lijeron said the ships carry plastics, sugar, corn syrup, metals and chemicals from Mexico to the U.S. Cargo from the U.S. back to Mexico includes pulp and paper, chemicals and metals. “Our commodity mix is very diverse,” he said.

Local officials said the occasion was a big day for them as well.

“There’s not a mayor in the world that’s smiling bigger than I am today,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. He added: “The city of Mobile had very little to do with this, except for this — We support the state docks. And we try to create relationships with our governor and with all of our elected officials so that they feel comfortable investing in the Port of Mobile, which really is the port for the state of Alabama.”

Rick Clark, deputy director and chief operating officer of the Alabama Port Authority, said that the port’s relationship with CG Railway was “very symbiotic,” with each depending on the other to make the distinctive service work. For the port, he said, the payoff is diversity. In an age of supply chain disruptions, it’s good to have options — and with rail ferry service, the Port of Mobile has one that other ports can’t match.

Seeing the new investment brings a level of confidence in the service that might not have been there five years ago.

“What we’re really excited about is seeing the future,” Clark said. “These are the investments needed to ensure that there is a future.”

The honor of breaking the traditional bottle of champagne against the ship’s hull was given to Virginia Reeves, a longtime Genesee & Wyoming employee chosen to be the ship’s “godmother.”

“I’m already godmother to six,” said Reeves. “But this is by far my biggest and heaviest baby.”

May 18, 2022

Among those on hand for the Cherokee’s christening were, from left: Erik Fabrikant, CEO of Seacor Holdings; Hoffman Lijeron, president of CG Railway; Virginia Reeves, the “godmother” of the ship; and Genesee & Wyoming CEO Jack Hellmann.Lawrence Specker | LSpecker@AL.com

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