The rail system has been used to transport freight since the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first to commercially transport passengers and freight in 1827. Since then, rail has become a crucial part of transporting goods.
The rail industry’s evolution has allowed for technology and logistical advancements to transport freight in a more efficient manner. One of those evolutions has led to a growth in train size; but should we encourage or avoid longer trains? What does train size mean for efficiency, safety, and climate impact?
Trains are four times more efficient in moving freight than trucks, according to the American Association of Railroads. According to CSX, the leading supplier of rail-based freight transportation in North America, “CSX trains can move a ton of freight approximately 492 miles on a single gallon of fuel.” This cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent. Similarly, “trains account for 40 percent of U.S freight but only 1.9 percent of U.S transport-related greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
Rail evolution has allowed it to keep up with other forms of freight transportation, such as trucks and cargo-planes. As it continues to keep up with its transportation competitors, the rail industry seems to be looking towards other advancements, including the number of cars on one train.
Trains have grown in length over time. Norman Schmelz told the Wall Street Journal, “I used to think 100 cars was a long train.” Now, “they go on forever,” he said. Schmelz is the former Mayor of Bergenfield, N.J. which is home to a busy CSX train route.
There are many advantages to longer trains. A longer train can reduce the cost of transportation by saving money on fuel and crews. For instance, a train between 10,000- and 12,000-feet moving freight from Illinois to New Jersey would cost around $60,000. The same freight split between two 5,000-foot trains would cost $74,000.
Longer freight trains also mean fewer freight trains, decreasing the number of trains that would travel through communities. They would also increase productivity, says Union Pacific Corps. spokeswoman Raquel Espinosa.
The standard freight train can stretch up to 7,000 feet, while long freight trains can stretch up to nearly 16,000 feet. The track record as of 2018 is a 15,820-foot train traveling between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Train companies are also taking advantage of the over $100 billion invested in rail transportation over the last several years. One upgrade includes, “remotely controlled diesel locomotives at the end or in the middle of superlong trains so that locomotives are both pulling and shoving at the same time,” says the Wall Street Journal. This solves a power problem that would break one train into two if not otherwise addressed.
Longer trains are not without their critics. Concerns for their safety and efficiency are growing.
Edward Burkhardt is the president of railroad consulting company, Rail World. On the topic of train length, Burkhardt said, “every time I see one of these trains, I think this type of operation is destroying our ability to compete in the freight marketplace.” Rail World is a known advocate for shorter, faster trains.
Longer trains can also cause logistical problems. Trains would block more crossings when traveling through communities, which would affect the flow of traffic and potentially block emergency vehicles.
Train length must also be considered in the investigation of train crashes. In 2017, a 178-car freight train derailed in Hyndman, P.A. No injuries were sustained, but the derailment damaged three homes and necessitated the evacuation of 1,000 residents. CSX estimated the damages at $1.8 million.
Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board issued their Rail Accident Report on the incident, making recommendations such as risk-reduction programs and hand-brake rules. None of the six recommendations explicitly mentioned train length.
Another crash consideration is the potential for oil spills. Some trains carry crude oil and other hazardous liquids, which contains a variety of properties that are harmful to humans and animals. This is why there is a hyper focus on preventing oil spills to save habitats, ecosystems, and human lives. A train carrying 100 cars carries about three million gallons and takes about three days to travel from Alberta, home to the third largest oil reserve in the world, to the oil refineries in the Gulf Coast. This equates to moving one million gallons per day.
From 1975 to 2012, train crashes and spills were less frequent due to shorter train lengths. In 2013, 1.15 million gallons of oil was spilled, including spills from derailments in Alabama (750,000 gallons spilled) and North Dakota (400,000 gallons spilled). For reference, 800,000 gallons were spilled between 1975 and 2012. But even with 1.15 million gallons being spilled, this still means that the rail industry safely delivered materials without incident 99.99 percent of the time.
On the topic of train crashes, human life must be considered as well. While no lives were lost in the 2013 derailment in Alabama, nor the 2017 derailment in Pennsylvania, a rare derailment in Quebec killed 47 people while spilling 1.5 million gallons of oil.
Rail transportation is crucial to our society. Our dependence upon goods that are transported around the country creates a need for the rail industry to evolve and become more efficient. This evolution is needed for the rail system to continue to be a viable source for transporting the goods we use on a daily basis.
Whether it is through longer trains, more safety precautions, or better technology, innovation in the rail industry cannot be stagnant. The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure supports research and innovation to promote the best practices in freight transportation. Presently, there seems to be little or no data-based reasons for regulations limiting freight train lengths, and industry competitiveness and cost should govern this decision. From a federal public policy standpoint, longer trains may be better for the environment from an emissions standpoint, and to help further reduce derailments, technology should be encouraged.