Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

One thought on “Longer freight trains in the United States

  1. People aren’t aware of the shit sandwich being made for them in the Railroad deli. 3 mile long freight trains, 1 person crews taking hazmat through their backyards the new trend of “precision” railroading” which, and I’m the furthest thing from anti capitalism or money, but this is vulture capitalism at the cost of people’s life’s. I am a 3rd generation Conductor with almost 18 years of service, and it’s just indescribable what’s going on. This PTC they swear is fail safe, it ISN’T. These monstrous trains we’re running now break apart constantly, last week my coal train was over 15k feet in length and had 3 knuckles bust in a single emergency application, it was pure hell. The railroad industry being publicly traded is just gone crazy with greed because nobody’s doing anything to prevent them from doing so. People need to get in touch with politicians even if they’ve never done so before. If they really knew what was rolling past their very own eyes they’d be horrified.

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