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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Railroads have a shortsighted attraction to extremely long trains: Analysis

Railroads have a shortsighted attraction to extremely long trains: Analysis

By Bill Stephens | November 17, 2022

Why 'no-fitters' make no sense

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A long Union Pacific merchandise train’s head end is well beyond Tunnel 10 while its tail end is still climbing Tehachapi Loop in California in September 2017. Bill Stephens

Railroads are attracted to extremely long trains like a moth to a flame. And sometimes they get burned from this unhealthy obsession.

A case in point: In October CSX Transportation ran two overlength merchandise trains at each other on its single-track mainline between Savannah and Augusta, Ga. The plan was to do a double saw-by — a maneuver as complicated and time-consuming as you can imagine — to get the no-fitters past each other. But that plan went out the window when the 12,000-footer tripped a hot box detector. While the conductor hit the ground to find the problem, the crew of the 11,000-footer was instructed to leave half of its train in a siding, then proceed to the next siding to await the 12,000-footer. Once it passed, the 11,000-footer had to retrace its steps and put its train back together before heading back in the right direction.

The idea behind long trains is as simple as it is old. Move your tonnage on fewer but longer trains and you save crew, locomotive, and fuel costs.

The savings can be illusory, though, if you take the concept to the extreme. In the CSX example, both manifest trains had to be recrewed. So did two locals caught up in the mess. Amtrak’s Silver Star was delayed 45 minutes. And, most importantly, the customers’ freight was delayed almost 5 hours.

It’s fair to ask: Is this any way to run a railroad?

Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel would say no. During hearings on the proposed CP-Kansas City Southern merger, Creel lamented the fact that Union Pacific’s long trains frequently block the main tracks around Englewood Yard in Houston, impeding KCS trains that run through the terminal via trackage rights on UP. Englewood’s receiving and departure tracks are a steam-era 7,000 feet, which is not uncommon. But since 2018 UP’s average train length has grown 30% to an industry-leading 9,483 feet, requiring longer trains to double or even triple their way in or out of Englewood.

Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman asked the obvious: Should UP be running shorter trains or building longer tracks?

Creel said he understands UP’s desire to run longer trains. “But you can’t let your ambitions get ahead of your physical plant,” he says. “You have to match yard capacity with main line capacity, size of trains.”

When CP wanted to run 10,000-footers in and out of the Twin Cities, it first extended the receiving and departure tracks at its St. Paul, Minn., yard to 10,000 feet so trains wouldn’t tie up the main.

UP could do the same at Englewood’s west end, where Creel says there’s room after the railroad shifted its intermodal operations to nearby Settegast Yard. UP has plans to lengthen Englewood’s receiving and departure tracks, but they’re on hold due to concerns over soil contamination on the site. To UP’s credit, it has completed 80 siding projects to support the operation of 15,000-foot trains. Yet there are still places where it’s more than 60 miles between long sidings.

Trains Columnist Bill Stephens

Railroads continue to push the limits of common sense with megatrains. On subdivisions where long sidings are few and far between, the no-fitter trains extend meet delays. Even double-track mains aren’t immune. Monster trains can bog down the double iron by taking longer to enter and exit permanent and temporary speed restrictions. Megatrains also encounter more frequent mechanical problems. The law of averages says that the more cars in a train, the more likely there’s a bad apple in the bunch.

Given all this collateral damage, why would some Class I railroads continue their love affair with trains that don’t fit their physical plants? It’s because they care more about the operating ratio and investors than they do about providing reliable service.

The service design veterans I spoke with agreed it’s bad railroading to run no-fitter trains in both directions in single-track territory. It’s also not a good idea to run lumbering behemoths that turn a fast double-track corridor into molasses. The toll on service simply isn’t worth it. And the supposed operational savings are all too often offset by unpredictability of recrewing trains en route.

This year, as part of its back-to-the-basics operations makeover, Canadian National stopped running trains over siding length. CEO Tracy Robinson says it’s among the interrelated reasons why CN’s on-time performance is up sharply, the railway is running faster than it has in six years, and unplanned recrews fell by 38% in the fall. Doesn’t that sound like a winning formula?

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @bybillstephens

30 thoughts on “Railroads have a shortsighted attraction to extremely long trains: Analysis

  1. The article says freight deliveries to customers were delayed by 5 hours. Events on a freight railroad occur in multiples of 24 hours. Therefore the delay was either no hours or 24 hours.

  2. Thanks Bill for the excellent analysis. Having watched railroads run these monster trains since PSR, and having watched railroad managements come and go for 50 years, I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen: some management team will come along and say they have a brilliant idea: “We can run shorter, faster trains! We will cut down on re-crews, the shippers will be happy, and we’ll get more business because of better service. We can save on the cost of extending all those sidings. It’s a win-win!” They will be hailed as geniuses and Wall Street will love them. Never mind that this was what railroads (notably Rio Grande) did decades earlier.

    I just hope they hurry up and figure it out so they can get out of the self-inflicted mess they are in now.

    1. The Rio Grande really had no choice but to run shorter freights.. Its ability to expand track capacity was severely limited by its geography. Hence why Don Orris came up with the idea of double-stacked freight while at DRGW.. You can’t go long however you can go high.

  3. Railroads must decide if they serve the money markets or run railways that serve the customers needs and both can be very different frequently.
    This double sawby described herein properly audited would easily show a disruption to UP’s network for a period from 60 to possibly more than 96 hours. This self planned injury to operations, plus the rolling blockaides are exactly the same as major derailments, hurricanes or floods. Now we talk of embargos!
    Could an enemy do a better job?

  4. Wonder how far the front half of the 11,000 footer had to back up to pick up the rest of it’s train? How many crossings pushed through. Conductor have to ride the lead car while backing for that distance? That sounds safe. So many questions.

  5. If I were doing it I wouldn’t shove the front part back. Run the engines back to pull the rear part up next to the front part and double them together there.

  6. Nice to see the light of reality has shinned on one railroad. Then again I wonder how many managers are complaining about lost bonuses.

  7. To say nothing of the spillover effects on Amtrak trains. I get the impression that this is a major reason why NS and CSX are opposing Amtrak service New Orleans-Mobile, a single-track line. Then, throw in Amtrak’s long-range strategy to add trains on many routes that currently have no passenger trains. . . .

  8. These executives remind me of a man that runs a country …Stupid ideas that don’t work. I remember a Trains magazine article years ago about KCS doing this. I think they did it regularly. So here is an idea. You have DPU capability. I you want to run 15,000 foot trains and your yard can’t take but 7500 foot, put a DPU at 7500 and split the train at the yard

  9. Always easy for one riding a train to solve all the problems of the railroad. How would the president of CP know the nuts-and-bolts detail of an operation as complicated as Houston?

    There are modeling tools that can answer the questions of Houston-area capacity. CP, KCS, and UP all use them. How about getting some decent analysis of the area, rather than shooting-from-the-hip, eh?

  10. The comnent on delays taking 24 hours or nothing at all is railroad nonsense. The shipper and receiver do not live in this crazy world. They have workers and customers who are affected when freight is late. It drives their costs up when they have to account for late deliveries or pickups. They have to have more staff to handle the freight and they have to have more material on hand to make up for the fact they can not trust the railroad to deliver.
    It is a slam dunk when another freight mode calls to offer service that can deliver more reliably and that does not think that they are the center of the universe.
    As with all big companies, if a cost isn’t in one department report it doesn’t exist. Division Y makes great reports…at the cost of the mechanical department and right of way and future revenue.

  11. Your citation of the experience of CN’s back to operation basics is quite convincing. It’s time the railroads pursue service rather than the short-term bottom line. In the long run, improved customer service and velocity will contribute to a healthier balance sheet.

  12. Here’s something I learned when I worked in civil engineering — you have to look at the whole picture, the entire chain of events. I will start with an analogy. There’s a certain state in America I won’t name that has magnificent freeways. Trouble is, no car or truck journey starts on a freeway nor ends on a freeway. The same state’s surface highways and local roads are appalling. Similarly, a railroad can move, or thinks it can move, a 15,000-foot train on the line-haul. Read the comments above in this thread. How does the railroad build this train at the originating yard? What happens to this train at the terminating yard? It’s gridlock.

      1. Well, then, I live in the outlier state, Wisconsin, one state of 50. We have the best state trunk highways, county trunk highways, and local roads. The interstates aren’t all up to standard.

  13. Thanks Bill Stephens for pointing out the flaws in too long trains. But your comment; “…Amtrak’s Silver Star was delayed 45 minutes. And, most importantly, the customers’ freight was delayed almost 5 hours.” stood out.

    No! it is never “more important” that freight was delayed while passengers wait. Exactly the reverse is true. It is more important that passengers are given preference in non-emergency situations (this was not an emergency). Always. Passengers are always more important than freight. Period.

    1. Hey John Webb, if Gardner and Coscia felt that “passengers are…important” they wouldn’t have dynamited their railroad in early October 2020.

    1. The only thing they read, if they can read, is the financial reports they send to their stockholders, or so it sometimes seems. LOL

  14. I can sum up this fiasco of very long freight trains and poor service PSR and the monster called Wall Street and the greedy investors and investment firms calling the shots. Wall Street has managed to install puppets to run the railroads and impose their ideas and cost cutting methods onthem. Greedy stockholders who know nothing about running a railroad or its purpose but eagerly await their payoffs in the form of money and stock dividends. Blood money received at the expense of the rail worker and the customers who have to endure poor service and shortages. PSR is a failure and I hope nobody thinks that E. Hunter Harrison was a genius or savior but rather a shill for the Wall Street interests and was a wrecker for the rail industry. The sooner the railroads and American industry and worker revolts and overthrows the dictatorship called Wall Street and their “capos” this country and industry and railroads will be much better off. Peope and companies can say they own and run their own business not if you have Wall Street and the stockholders controlling how you run your company
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  15. It’s absolutely amazing how railroads will copy bad idea after bad idea, simply because “a competitor RR is doing it”. It’s incredible. Instead of doing their own research to see whether any new idea is good idea, or will even work for them, they jump right in, full bore, copying the other railroad, most times to realize it simply does not work. These CEO’s all need to go. Instead of concentrating on their business, which is “to move customers freight”, all their efforts are put towards “investor returns and somehow fudging the numbers to show a lower operating ratio”. That’s ALL they care about. As Matt Rose, former BNSF CEO stated year’s ago when this horrible “precision scheduled railroading” was being copied by every class 1, less BNSF, he said if you want government regulations back in railroading like pre 80’s, PSR will accomplish that. Customers complaining about poor service and additional fee’s along with citizens in cities and towns across the country calling their representatives about their towns cut in half by 15,000 foot trains, will bring lots of government attention. Too bad there are not enough “Matt Rose’s” and too many “Hunter Harrison’s”.

  16. Keith Creel has been an apostle/proponent of PSR, which seems to have evolved. When PSR was first rolled out on the IC, it was a very common sense approach to achieving efficiency and effectiveness in operations. Over time, it has been perverted to achieve whatever the “powers that be” want to achieve.

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