North America’s trains are getting longer every year. That trend, which takes advantage of an engineering shift to improve railroad productivity, allows major cross-country lines to cut the number of average daily trains and crew starts to haul the same amount of cargo.
From the shippers’ viewpoint, it can mean fewer train schedule choices when moving a few carloads, or having to bring more loads together for a big unit train carrying a single commodity.
It’s part of the cost-cutting strategy railroads were using even before the 2008-09 recession, and the growing use of the strategy is one reason railroads maintained strong profits even as volume declined.
What makes it possible, railroaders say, is “distributed power” — a concept for getting more control of a train’s speed and movement dynamics by interspersing locomotives throughout a train, with the lead unit controlling them all.
That’s far different than the traditional method of having a couple lead locomotives pulling, or just adding a couple on the end to assist. Spreading power units among the loads reduces slack in the train and wear on railcar couplings. It offers a more stable ride, and allows the train to take more railcars.
It also means equipping locomotives with the right gear. Canadian National Railway, which has been pressing for longer trains on its routes, began using DP-equipped locomotives in 2004, spokesman Mark Hallman said. By the end of 2012, he said, the company expects to have about 41 percent of its 1,100 long-haul locomotives so equipped.
“CN has developed a comprehensive operating plan that employs longer, more productive trains in mainline corridors” with DP locomotives, Hallman said. That brings better utilization of equipment and manpower, plus safer train operations, he said.
At Union Pacific Railroad, spokesman Tom Lange said this type of equipment helped UP reduce the rate of train derailments to its best-ever level in 2010. That, in turn, helps keep the rail network open and improve use of railcar inventory, cycling the same freight cars through the system more often.
The longer train operations also save UP 4 to 6 percent in fuel costs depending on the route. The carrier moved about 62 percent of its gross ton-miles by distributed power last year, up from 35 percent in 2008.
UP began distributing its power units first through coal trains, has since deployed them in intermodal service and mixed-cargo manifest trains, and now orders any new locomotives to come DP-equipped.
Just in the past three years, Lange said, “distributed power has helped us increase manifest train size by 6 percent (81 to 86 cars), coal trains by 2 percent (126 to 128 cars) and intermodal trains by 7 percent (154 to 165 cars). Without distributed power, this would translate into another 50 to 60 trains running on our network every day. So, using distributed power increases network capacity.”
UP tested the outer limits of the tactic early last year with a 3.5-mile train, two to three times the usual length, through Southern California. That effort surprised local officials, however, and UP said it was merely a test of operating efficiency.
Hallman said CN sees a maximum length for DP-equipped trains of 12,000 feet — or more than two miles.
Contact John D. Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.