Omaha World-Herald | Railroads are Adding More Cars to Trains

07.03.17 | Russell Hubbard, Omaha World-Herald

The train that moved through downtown Council Bluffs late last month on a bright Saturday morning didn’t seem extraordinary at first glance - just another Union Pacific freighter with different types of cargo and railcars slowly crossing the railroad tracks in a town crisscrossed with railroad tracks.

But it was notable in one respect: It was 142 cars long. And for a manifest train - the industry term for trains with mixed cargoes and car types - it was 45 percent longer than the average Union Pacific manifest train in 2016.

The extra length was no accident. Trains are getting longer, as the nation’s freight railroads seek out greater efficiency - lower expenses mean higher profits - by grouping more railcars into fewer trains.

The railroads say their crews are well-equipped to handle longer trains, and that they spur a more flexible and productive transportation system, the cost of which ultimately gets passed on in the price of everything that gets moved on the nation’s rails, from auto parts to zinc.

A lot of it just common sense, said Larry Gross, a consultant at FTR Transportation Intelligence. He said the cost of staffing a freight train is the same regardless of how many cars are in it. “So, the bigger the train, the lower the crew-cost per car,” Gross said.

Managing costs is something the railroads excelled at during the recent freight slump - quarterly shipments at the seven Class I railroads fell for two straight years, a skein that ended only last quarter. Though shipments fell, trains got longer, productivity was boosted and profits remained as the companies furloughed workers, mothballed locomotives and raised prices to remain in the black.

Union Pacific, for example, remained solidly profitable throughout 2015 and 2016, when volumes fell 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Despite the slack demand, in 2015, the company had net income of $4.8 billion, and $4.2 billion last year. At BNSF, 2015 net income was $4.2 billion, on shipments that were little-changed from a year earlier, while 2016 profit was $3.6 billion on a 5 percent drop in volume.

But the law of diminishing returns is important when it comes to train size, Gross said: Going from 10 cars to 11 reduces the per-car cost by 10 percent, but going from 100 cars to 101 cars reduces the per-car cost by only 1 percent, he said. Longer trains are often slower trains, Gross added, because they take longer to move through curves and other areas where speed limits are lower than on open track.

But Gross said he sees no inherent safety dangers to longer trains. Unmanned, radio-controlled locomotives in the middle or rear of trains can supply power as needed, reducing the physical forces bearing on longer trains and improving braking over what can be provided without them.

“Big trains can be operated safely,” Gross said. “But at the risk of stating the obvious, mega-trains are generally unpopular with the towns that they pass through to the extent that there are highway-grade crossings as they take considerably longer to clear.”

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