Friday, December 8, 2017

Rail Freight Debates Continue from Longer Trains and Death on the Tracks to Intermodal Connectivity

Global Problems and Plans in the Track Borne Sector
Shipping News Feature

US – GERMANY – NORWAY – UK – Both bulk and intermodal rail freight has been very much in the news this week, mostly unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, some of them tragic. There are still far too many deaths around the world caused by the interaction of freight and passenger trains with pedestrians and vehicles, largely it has to be said caused by the human failures of impatience, ignorance and the inability to grasp the dangers.

There have been two nasty incidents in the past few days, vastly different in character, but sadly with similar results. In the US a 32 year old woman was killed by a CSX freight train on the northbound track that runs parallel to Route 9W near the town of Ulster. Local police have said they suspect suicide. Meanwhile in Germany a passenger train carrying around 150 passengers collided with a freight train causing around fifty injuries, three of them life threatening.

People generally have the ability to avoid the first of such situations but the second is simply a matter of chance. In Norway there are hundreds of accidents at this time of year, not however so newsworthy as they involve animals rather than people. In a single week over 100 reindeer were killed by trains with an annual death toll regularly exceeding 250.

These however are not wild animals, they are in fact being herded at this time of the year from summer grazing to winter pastures and the total for all such species, including elk, deer and sheep saw over 2,000 animals die in this way, or have to be put down due to their injuries in 2016 alone. Now, sick of what it sees as unnecessary carnage, the Care2 organisation is petitioning for the installation of modern digital surveillance systems, coupled with mandatory speed limits to be put in place and has launched a petition, available HERE.

One of the biggest causes of those incidents involving people and vehicles hit by freight trains, particularly in the US, is simply the frustration of trying to beat the train because failing to do so means facing a passing trail of wagons which seems to go on almost interminably. Now the US Congress is launching an investigation into the safety of increasingly long freight trains being operated by CSX, Union Pacific and other major US railroads.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) suspects that the unregulated lengths of freight trains give the chance for the companies to boost earnings, at the expense of safety. Longer trains mean costs can be cut for fuel and staffing and so, in February, the GAO study will look both at safety and environmental issues caused by the huge columns. The investigation is in response to several approaches to Democratic members of the House Transportation Committee regarding delays at crossing points, and the safety problems these engender.

Data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) confirms that there has been an increase in railroad incidents and accidents in the past few months, directly linked to the ever lengthening trains. Attempts to bolster profits have led CSX to lengthen the average freight train by 400 feet in the past nine months alone, whilst Norfolk Southern’s trains have hit a record average length of 5,500 feet this year.

Some of the incidents are truly terrifying, a CSX train almost 2 miles long spilt molten sulphur in Florida last month, whilst another in August partially derailed and took fire causing the town of Hyndman, Pennsylvania to be evacuated. The spate of accidents has caused the FRA to step up its inspections at many of the major railroad company facilities.

In the UK more mundane track related news has made the headlines, the new Strategic Vision for Rail published last month by the Department for Transport (DfT), whilst mostly concerned with passenger transport does recognise the importance of the rail freight sector, continuing the government theme particularly with regard to taking goods off the road and thus lowering pollution levels. The main bone of contention is, as usual, the debate over separation of track infrastructure management and rolling stock.

Freight demands a more flexible approach to management than is often the case, looking for impartial control of the rails whilst contractors carrying the goods remain as truly separate entities with free access throughout the countrywide network. Whilst supporting the government’s promises of support to grow track borne freight, Rail Freight Group (RFG) executive director Maggie Simpson says the latest Whitehall pronouncements to reinforce last year’s Rail Freight Strategy must also ensure impartiality is maintained, commenting:

“Government has set out a clear vision for rail freight as a core part of the nation’s railways – we now need to understand how regional partnerships will support freight growth, alongside Network Rail’s FNPO route and system operator.

”We will be encouraging Department for Transport to consider explicit targets in partnership contracts, to require named senior individuals with responsibility for freight, and to support enhanced governance between different parts of the industry to ensure that Government’s vision for rail freight can be delivered on the ground.”

If the government actually delivers on its promises there is a chance that rail in the UK can perform ever more efficiently in the future through both the Clean Growth Strategy and the push to improve intermodal links between the key points across the UK which the government is studying under its Port Connectivity programme. The Rail Freight Strategy published in September 2016 pledged to commit £235 million to ensure greater freight capacity by 2019, part of the CP5 Rail Investment Strategy which promises a £46 billion programme to ‘operate and advance’ the railway up to that time, and cited in July’s overall Transport Investment Strategy.

Photo: Devastation at the site of the derailment at Hyndman, Pennsylvania earlier this year.