Boom Times for a Tiny Texas Town
By Russell Gold
It was a railroad that brought this tiny town into existence in 1910, when it was named after the stationmaster, William F. Barnhart. Today that same railroad is putting the town on the map again—as an unlikely hub of the new American oil boom.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has created a surge of oil production from the Permian Basin, as drillers use water, chemicals and sand to crack open oil-bearing rocks deep underground. The heart of the West Texas oil region now produces about 550,000 barrels of oil a day, up 38% from three years ago.
That has given new life to Barnhart, an unincorporated town 250 miles west of Austin with only 200 residents, a post office, one taco truck and a filling station called the Big Red Barn. It has brought increased spending from oil field and rail workers, even as most of them have looked for housing in other nearby cities.
The turn in fortunes has been especially dramatic for the 113-year-old South Orient Railroad, which passes through Barnhart on its nearly 400-mile trek from Presidio on the Mexican border to a junction north of San Angelo, Texas.
Traffic on the railroad, which had been on the verge of extinction several times in the past century, has tripled in the past five years, to more than 10,000 rail cars a year, and is on pace to double in 2013. That is because the millions of pounds of fracking sand coming into this region—and a fairly large portion of the crude oil exiting it—are now riding its rails.
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