Friday, January 15, 2010

The Facts About The Californian Super Freight Train

Union Pacific’s Answers to Concerns
Shipping News Feature

CALIFORNIA / USA – Those who follow developments in the rail freight industry could hardly have missed the furore that occurred when Union Pacific (UP) ran their longest ever train through California last weekend. At 18,061-feet long (3.4 miles) and weighing in at 15,498 tons, this monster has caused both the California Public Utilities Commission and local Congresswoman Grace Napolitano to express concerns on grounds both of safety and inconvenience to road users who had to wait at crossings for the behemoth to pass.

Speaking of her worries for her constituents, Representative Napolitano said that she did not believe Union Pacific when it said that the train only took three-to-five minutes to clear crossings, adding that she would be asking “a lot more questions” over the run.

In an effort to clarify the situation the Handy Shipping Guide contacted Union Pacific’s Director of Corporate Communications, Tom Lange, who stated that though this particular train had indeed been longer than the more usual intermodal freight trains operated by the company, which normally reach around 9,000 feet in length, UP did run trains of 12,500 feet between Chicago and LA and that this represented a one-off trial to collect data.

“This was not so much testing technology to see if it worked, since 65 percent of our trains already use distributed power, rather [it was] collecting data relative to braking and acceleration as well as other in-train forces, and measuring wear and tear on the rails and the rail car wheels,” he said.

He added that: “The train followed all existing operating rules and regulations including track speed restrictions. We were not required to notify public agencies or Federal Rail Administration (FRA) because we were following existing operating practices.

“However, we did notify local FRA regulators who observed the train.”

When questioned over Congresswoman’s Napolitano’s concerns on how long the train took to clear grade crossings Mr. Lange said that: “The train traveled 60-70 mph for most of the route. We cleared all crossings within the allotted times, most of them within 3-5 minutes.”

He further added that in terms of time savings for waiting motorists, the use of one three-mile train in comparison to three one-mile standard freight trains would be around 40 to 50 seconds to motorists at crossing points when the barriers closing times were added into the equation.

Lange also pointed out that in terms of road congestion and pollution this particular train had, by carrying 618 shipping containers, taken “…an equal number of trucks off America's congested highways. Those trucks would have traveled through Los Angeles. The EPA estimates that trains are 3-4 times more fuel efficient than trucks. If 10 percent of highway freight moved by rail instead, our country annually would save one billion gallons of fuel.”

When asked about the safety concerns on the use of such a large vehicle, Lange explained that: “Using distributed power makes trains safer because it reduces physical forces on the train and makes it less prone to derailments. For example, the pressure on rail car couplers is more evenly distributed because the cars don't have the strain as when they are pulled in a more traditional method with the locomotives at the front of the train.

“Distributed power also facilitates more even braking and has the potential to reduce wheel and track wear.”

In short, the use of bigger freight trains would be safer, cleaner, offer greater logistics saving (after all, the freight they’re shipping are the products you’re buying) and less time consuming for motorists who may have to wait longer when stuck at a crossing, but who would be a third less likely to get caught in the first place.

However, for any who still don’t like the idea of these giants rumbling through their counties you don’t have to worry unduly. Mr. Lange also confirmed that: “This was a one-time run of a train of this size and we have no near-term plans to run another one.”

(pic: © Union Pacific)