Locomotive engineers’ union calls for limiting freight train lengths

In-train forces of longer trains change the ways engineers maneuver trains, BLET says

By Joanna Marsh for freightwaves.com

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen wants the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order restricting freight train lengths. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The argument over whether the Class I railroads should deploy longer trains continues, with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) recently calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order that would limit the length of freight trains to 7,500 feet.

The Oct. 9 letter to FRA Administrator Amit Bose and signed by BLET President Eddie Hall says FRA should consider an emergency order because developing and issuing a regulatory standard would “take a very long time.”

The union said setting limits of train lengths is necessary because not all locomotive engineers may be trained or experienced enough to handle longer trains, which could have greater in-train force than shorter trains. The railroads’ infrastructure network also might not always accommodate longer trains.

Hall cited two FRA safety advisories in February and April that highlighted the role that train build and makeup may have had in recent train accidents. 

“With train length continuing to expand, the Carriers have implemented the train length growth without training locomotive engineers to handle these monstrous trains properly. Class I Railroads have failed to consider route infrastructure, e.g. passing sidings, crossings at grade, cross-over switches, and public interactions (such as proximity to schools and hospitals) when building and dispatching very long trains. This was never an issue with trains within the 7,500-foot length,” Hall said. He also said the union had sent copies of its letter to all the Class I railroads to urge them to limit their train lengths in the absence of a regulatory standard.

The union attributed the railroads’ use of longer trains to the deployment of precision scheduled railroading, an operational method that seeks to streamline operations. 

“Now, very long trains are the ‘new normal.’ Best practices do not exist. The railroads have responded by simply adding more distributed power locomotives (“DPU”), but this does not solve any problems of very long trains … . When trains are excessively long, train engineers are unable to adjust their operations to accommodate for terrain, which can mask where in-train forces are occurring throughout the train,” Hall said.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents the Class I railroads, has said that the industry has developed training and technological tools that address operational issues related to longer trains. The industry’s safety record has also been improving over time, AAR said, with the industry’s mainline accident rate falling by 44% since 2000. Others, meanwhile, have said that regulating train lengths could result in an increase in shorter trains blocking rail crossings at higher rates.

AAR President Ian Jefferies responded to BLET’s request for an emergency order in his own letter to FRA dated last Thursday. “Respectfully, there is no emergency. Railroads have safely operated millions of trains in excess of 7,500 feet over the last eight decades. Experience shows that these trains are safe. As such, there is absolutely no safety justification for the extraordinary step of an emergency order,” Jefferies said.

Meanwhile, regulation looking at freight train lengths is still pending before FRA. The agency recently ended a comment period on whether FRA should collect monthly data from the freight railroads on the lengths and weights of trains.

Updated: October 17, 2023 — 2:40 PM

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