Beyond a child’s imagination, there aren’t many places where 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, April 18. Go here to subscribe to the led.
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 was also a day of much fanfare, as the Cherokee received a long-delayed christening. Spirits among company, city and port officials were ebullient – although CG Railway President Hoffman Lijeron admitted he was also uneasy to proceed 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 naming ceremony,” he said. “As you can see we docked our two new state of the art ferries in Mobile today which makes this day even more special. In a typical week, after loading and unloading, one ship leaves Mobile while the other was scheduled to leave the port of Coatzacoalcos. We actually orchestrated this particular situation so you can see the incredible capacity we are offering to our existing and potential customers.
“Nevertheless, I want to give our customers some peace of mind,” he said. “The Cherokee, as soon as we’re done with this event, the Cherokee will start loading, and after that we’ll unload the Mayan… Very important, we’re sticking to the departure schedule that’s published in a month’s time.
“We don’t baptize for a living, do we?” said Lijeron, drawing laughter from his audience. “We don’t do that regularly. We move wagons for a living so I really need these two ships to get moving.”
The history of this unusual shipping company goes back a little more than 20 years. Apart from a brief stint calling at the Port of New Orleans, Mobile was its US terminus. International Ship Holding Corp. operated the service throughout with two older vessels, the Banda Sea and the Bali Sea. By 2017, the company was working its way through bankruptcy and the two ships – which made up a small part of its portfolio of assets – were showing their age.
Seacor Holdings CEO Erik Fabrikant said that Seacor acquired the line in 2017, knowing that serious investment was required. “The service wasn’t great,” he said. “In fact, by our standards, it was pretty bad.”
Seacor partnered with Genesee & Wyoming, a railroad company specializing in short-haul and railroads. It owns or leases more than 100 of these worldwide, including the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway. Seacor and G&W teamed 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 presented major challenges. The new ships finally entered service in late 2021, but the pandemic, particularly the surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant, has delayed the fanfare of a naming until now.
Lijeron said the company’s three goals are to increase capacity, speed and reliability. The new ships, which he described as “the world’s two largest and most modern rail ferries,” deliver, he said. They can carry 18% more wagons per trip – up to 136 versus around 115 for the older ships – and cut transit time from five days to less than three. (Lijeron said transporting the same cars overland, by comparison, would take at least a week and possibly longer depending on complications at the border.)
Cherokee captain Michael Manzano said he really appreciates the upgrade. “Oh, big difference,” he said. “Faster, wider, bigger.”
Lijeron said the ships are carrying plastics, sugar, corn syrup, metals and chemicals from Mexico to the United States. The cargo from the US back to Mexico includes pulp and paper, chemicals and metals. “Our mix of raw materials is very diverse,” he said.
Local officials said the occasion was a big day for them too.
“There isn’t a mayor in the world who smiles like I do today,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. He added: “The City of Mobile had very little to do with this except – We support the state docks. And we’re trying to build relationships with our governor and all of our elected officials to make them feel comfortable investing in the Port of Mobile, which is truly the port of the state of Alabama.”
Rick Clark, deputy director and chief operating officer for the Port of Alabama Authority, said the port’s relationship with the CG Railway is “very symbiotic,” with the two depending on each other to provide distinctive service. For the port, he said, diversity pays off. In times 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.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing the future,” Clark said. “These are the investments that are necessary for there to be a future.”
Virginia Reeves, a longtime Genesee & Wyoming employee who was chosen to be the ship’s “godmother,” was given the honor of breaking the traditional champagne bottle on the ship’s hull.
“I’m already a godmother of six,” Reeves said. “But this is by far my biggest and heaviest baby.”