August 9, 2023

Report: Data should drive debate on freight train lengths


A report by a nonpartisan think tank suggests that policymakers and Congress take heed before regulating the length of U.S. freight trains, saying that available safety and operations data doesn’t appear to show a causal relationship between train lengths and accident rates.

Rather, regulating train lengths could result in an increase in shorter trains blocking rail crossings at higher rates, according to the Alexandria, Virginia-based Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii), which said this is just one of the outcomes that policymakers should consider before regulating freight train lengths.

“Despite the popular and negative gut-level reaction to longer trains, the data helps settle certain concerns while offering a lot of angles to consider before making public policy changes,” author and Aii Executive Director Benjamin Dierker said in a Monday news release. “There is certainly a reasonable limit to the length a freight train should be, but from accident reporting forms and public data, there is not yet a clear picture of what that length is or how it should be set — whether by a regulatory cap, industry leadership, or collective bargaining.”

Aii’s report comes as a number of governmental bodies are examining what impacts longer trains might have on operations and rail safety. The Federal Railroad Administration is considering collecting more data from the Class I railroads on train lengths and train weights, while the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is conducting a study on train lengths. Congress asked the National Academies to examine the issue, and FRA is sponsoring the project.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in places such as Nevada are considering or have tried to push for laws that would set limits on freight train lengths. 

“Balanced public policy must properly weigh the costs and benefits of train length. Once this analysis is completed, policymakers can be better equipped with data in hand to implement targeted reforms that will mitigate the costs of longer trains while enhancing the benefits they can provide,” the report’s executive summary said.

One of the data points that the report examines is the number of incidents occurring at rail crossings. Its analysis of the data determined that over 87% of crossing incidents since 2000 have involved trains of “typical” length, with less than 1% of incidents involving “very long trains.”

Meanwhile, train lengths have grown since the 1980s in part because train car lengths have gotten longer, according to the report. While the average number of train cars on a train is consistent with 2022 numbers, train car length has increased, according to the report.   

“This means to some extent, train length has increased due to the long-term investment — by railroad companies and the logistics industry — in railcars and platforms to service intermodal containers, higher capacity for cargo, and more payloads of various kinds,” the report said. “The growth is not explained solely by railroad companies linking greater numbers of train cars to locomotives. With demand projected to grow for freight transport by as much as 30 percent in less than 20 years, it may be an economic necessity to the nation’s well-being to move more cars. Whether that is done on fewer or more trains may depend in part on this analysis.”

As policymakers and regulators examine the issue of freight train length, they need to also consider the economic and environmental impacts that might occur because of restricting train size, according to the report. This includes collecting more data — but also having a timeline for that data collection so as not to rack up continued compliance costs.

“Should any length restriction on freight trains be applied — though none is warranted from existing data — it should not be a fixed and general rule,” the report said. Rather, limits on train length “should be as narrowly tailored as possible to avoid imposing costs on railroads and their customers. For example, a train running through a densely populated and highly trafficked metropolitan area with numerous crossings is entirely different from a long-haul route that spans hundreds of miles with few or no crossings. Likewise, a train carrying mixed cargo in intermodal containers is vastly different from a single-commodity train of coal or one with certain hazardous materials.”

The report continued: “A rule that applies to both dissimilar trains without distinction is inefficient. Additional considerations should be applied based on factors such as traffic mix, region/terrain, population density, presence and volume of hazardous materials, train makeup, gross weight, integration of positive train control technology and similar tools, crew size, ground-based crew availability, automatic track inspection technology, season, and economic value.”

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