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Iowa bill seeks to limit length of freight trains

A bill in the Iowa Legislature is seeking to restrict the length of freight trains operating in the state.

The legislation was introduced in the Iowa House of Representatives on Thursday and passed a three-member subcommittee on Friday. The bill would prevent railroad companies from running trains that exceed 8,500 feet in length, or about 1.6 miles. If signed into law, the rule could cost companies between $500 and $5,000 per violation.

Some freight trains have been reported to be as long as 3 miles, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The issue of longer trains has become divisive in recent years, with precision scheduled railroading, a method to streamline operations adopted by the Class I railroads, considered as encouraging increased train lengths as a way to improve productivity. But railroad unions and some local communities generally have been against longer trains. 

Unions argue longer trains can congest the rail network because not all of the U.S. network’s infrastructure can support them. Communities have suggested longer trains can block grade crossings for longer periods of time, thus threatening emergency responders’ ability to respond to calls quickly.

Trains with “excessive lengths” have not been tested enough to ensure the infrastructure can support the tonnage and length requirements, according to Chris Smith, who is lobbying in favor of the bill on behalf of the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD). There is also no training for locomotive conductors and engineers on how to properly handle these trains, Smith said. 

“But mainly it’s the block crossings that are the biggest concern to the public, for the fire department, the EMS, medical [departments] and [to the] everyday lives of citizens,” Smith told FreightWaves.

But Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) questioned the legality of the bill, and the railroad argued that longer trains could also translate into fewer trains passing through.

“The free flow of commerce across state lines is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and state regulations that seek to limit train length are unconstitutional,” UP told FreightWaves. “Trains are the most fuel-efficient way to transport large quantities of goods and supplies, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions up to 75% compared to trucks. By reducing the overall number of trains that operate on our network, we further reduce our carbon footprint and limit the potential for communities to be impacted at crossings.

“Leveraging train capacity allows us to meet our resource needs, maintain network fluidity and more efficiently serve our customers.”

This is not the first time a bill of this nature has been introduced in Iowa’s state legislature. A similar piece of legislation was brought forth last year but failed to pass the committee stage, according to media reports.

The introduction of the bill is also timely given the Surface Transportation Board could soon render a decision on the proposed merger between railroad giants Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern. According to a final environmental impact statement released by STB on Friday, a stretch of CP track from Sabula, Iowa, to Kansas City, Missouri, could see frequency increase by an average 14.4 trains every day post-merger. 

Lobbyists in support of the bill include those representing the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART-TD, while those against it include lobbyists from UP, BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B), Canadian railway CN (NYSE: CNI), short-line operator Patriot Rail and other short-line railroads.

According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and subsidiaries belonging to Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) also operate in the state. 

As Iowa legislators potentially take up this proposed legislation, federal efforts have been underway to address the issue of longer trains. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 charges the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to require that accident reports should include information on train length, as well as the number of rail cars and crew size. 

A May 2019 GAO report found the average train length for two Class I railroads increased by 25% between 2008 and 2017 and recommended FRA work with state and local governments to reduce impacts of longer freight trains on highway-railroad crossings.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.