Union Pacific Railroad over the weekend tested an ultra-long 18,000-foot double-stack train on a run from Texas to Southern California, but the railroad apparently does not intend to run such long trains on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, railroads are always seeking ways to achieve greater economies of scale, so longer intermodal trains could be on the horizon if railroads can overcome operational hurdles, such as limitations at rail sidings. Also, the trains can not exceed regulatory requirements involving delays at grade crossings.
In 2008, for example, BNSF Railway increased the length of double-stack trains on its high-volume corridors to 10,000 feet from 7,500 feet. The longer trains each carry about 325 containers compared with 250 containers carried by the more common 7,500-foot trains.
UP spokesman Tom Lange said last weekend's run was designed to gather operational and safety data on braking, acceleration, the number of power units needed and wear and tear on the tracks and wheels.
The 18,000-foot train carried 600 containers. Nine locomotives were spread throughout the train.
Lange said UP's average train length is 6,000 feet, although the railroad does run trains as long as 12,000 feet in high-volume corridors such as between Los Angeles-Long Beach and Chicago.
Longer double-stack trains offer commercial efficiencies by reducing the per-unit cost of moving containers over long distances. However, they do not work on all routes. Los Angeles-Long Beach to Chicago or Dallas are high-volume routes that can fill long trains on a regular basis, but there are many port-inland destination routes that do not generate enough traffic for regular service by 10,000-foot or longer trains.
A long train can likewise be environmentally superior to running several shorter trains by reducing fuel consumption and diesel emissions. However, longer trains also mean longer delays for vehicular traffic at grade crossings in metropolitan areas.
This not only creates ill will in local communities, but can be illegal. California, for example, restricts delays at crossings to 10 minutes maximum. Last weekend's test run was observed by regulators in the state.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.