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Federal Railroad Administration urges caution on train lengths

The Federal Railroad Administration has issued a safety advisory asking railroad companies to be mindful of the operational complexities involving longer trains.

The safety advisory follows another one issued by FRA earlier this month, in which the agency recommended freight railroads look closely at how they configure freight trains because the way that trains are configured can affect the in-train forces that are put upon the train.

“Freight train length has increased in recent years, and while research is ongoing related to operational aspects of long trains, including brake system performance, it is known that the in-train forces longer trains experience are generally stronger and more complex than those in shorter train consists,” FRA said in its latest advisory. 

As freight railroad companies take train length into account in configuring trains, FRA is advising that railroads review operating rules and existing locomotive engineer certification programs, as well as “take appropriate action to prevent the loss of communications between end-of-train devices and mitigate the impacts of long trains on blocked crossings.”

FRA recommends railroads identify changes to crew training; examine train handling procedures and train makeup; look into distributed power unit requirements and limitations to length or tonnage; factor in speed restrictions; take into consideration track, mechanical and brake inspections; and ensure that operations provide the necessary maintenance requirements to promote the safe operation of longer trains.

The agency also asked the railroads to provide complete data after an incident that could inform safety regulators of the factors that led to the incident, as well as to be mindful of how a stopped train or a long train has the potential to impede local first responders’ ability to answer calls. 

FRA pointed to three recent derailments in which train length was a contributing factor. In each incident, the trains were hauling more than 200 rail cars, were at least 12,250 feet long and weighed over 17,000 trailing tons. 

The incidents were a March 4 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) train in Springfield, Ohio, a Nov. 1, 2022, derailment of an NS train in Ravenna, Ohio, and a March 24, 2022, derailment of a Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) train in Rockwell, Iowa.

“FRA believes these incidents demonstrate the need for railroads and railroad employees to be particularly mindful of the complexities of operating longer trains, which include, but are not limited to: (1) train makeup and handling; (2) railroad braking and train handling rules, policies, and procedures; (3) protecting against the loss of end-of-train (EOT) device communications; and (4) where applicable, protecting against the loss of radio

communications among crew members,” the agency said. “These technical complexities make it critical that employees assigned to operate longer trains are adequately trained and qualified for the most demanding service for which they can be called.

“Additionally, these technical complexities make it necessary to ensure that a railroad’s operational testing program adequately assesses and evaluates whether employees are appropriately equipped and demonstrate the capability to fully address those complexities in real world operating scenarios.”

The Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing freight railroads, says on its website that the median length of a train on Class I railroads in 2021 was 5,400 feet, with 10% of trains longer than 9,800 feet and fewer than 1% longer than 14,000 feet.

But the group also argues that certain technologies, such as distributed power, enable the safe operation of longer trains, while longer trains also provide the opportunity to improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

FRA’s safety advisory follows other recent actions on train length. Among them, a bill in the Nevada Legislature seeks to prohibit trains more than 7,500 feet long on main lines, which would consist of railroad tracks that see 5 million gross tons or more transported annually, as well as on lines that branch off from the main line.

FRA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are conducting separate studies on the operational factors involved in running trains longer than 7,500 feet. The results from those studies should be available in 2024. 

FRA’s study focuses on air brake system performance and the resulting train dynamics of trains comprised of up to 200 cars.

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