July 25, 2023

Federal regulators seek feedback on plan to collect train length data


The Federal Railroad Administration is seeking public input on its plan to ask the Class I railroads to submit monthly data on the lengths and weights of trains. 

FRA says the additional data collection is necessary so it has sufficient data available to study train lengths, especially after the agency issued a safety advisory in April telling the railroads to be mindful of the potential complexities associated with operating longer trains. Longer trains could result in more complex in-train forces, and FRA is conducting research to analyze what impact train length might have on rail safety.

The agency is accepting comments through Sept. 19.

“This data collection is necessary to allow objective findings to be made that can be used to either justify the status quo or to provide justification for further recommendations or agency action,” FRA said in a Friday notice in the Federal Register. “Of note, FRA is seeking to collect data on train length on an ongoing basis, as opposed to this being a one-time study.”

FRA is seeking to receive on a monthly basis data from the Class I railroads that includes the total number of trains operated, the total number of cars on those trains and the total trailing tonnage in specified train length categories. The categories might be trains less than or equal to 7,500 feet and trains longer than 7,500 feet.

The agency also plans to collect data that might provide insight on the potential operational complexities involved in running longer trains, such as the number of emergency events, the number of communication event losses, the number of broken knuckles, the number of air hose separations, the number of PTC enforcements and the number of locomotive engineer revocations, FRA said.

“FRA will use the collected data to establish an initial baseline for the length of trains operating within the U.S. rail system as well as to determine if train lengths are changing over time. FRA may also use the collected data in future analyses to better understand the impact of train length on safety (e.g., to determine whether trains of certain lengths are disproportionately involved in certain type of accidents/incidents or other undesired events such as loss of communications or train stalling),” FRA said.

The request for additional data comes amid an April safety advisory in which FRA noted that three significant incidents that occurred since 2022 involved trains that were hauling more than 200 cars and were more than 10,000 feet in length. The trains were also more than 17,000 trailing tons. In the safety advisory, FRA said it had recommended that the railroads review their operating rules and existing locomotive engineer certification programs to address operational complexities of train length, 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 also referenced in its public comments request that the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2019 that found that freight train length increased in recent years. However, that report is based on limited data, FRA said. 

FRA also said it is continuing to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to examine factors associated with the operation of freight trains longer than 7,500 feet, although that effort will also likely be based on limited data.

FRA’s request for more data also comes as state legislators in Nevada, Iowa and Washington introduced bills that would restrict freight train lengths this year. Further action on those bills is still pending.

FRA is charged to ask for public comments on its plans to collect additional information before the agency can submit its plans to the Office of Management and Budget, per federal law.

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