NS: Considering 17,000-ft Trains


02.February, Atlanta, GA – A 14,000-ft train is now a relatively common sight, where the territory allows. Long trains are no strangers to the railroads that have adopted PSR as a way to reduce costs, increase revenue and improve their operating ratio (O:R). According to exclusive, well-placed sources, NS is considering raising the bet to run 17,000-ft trains, to speed its drive to lower its O:R in line with the industry average.

At the end of 2020, NS’s O:R was 69.3, some 10 pts above the Class I industry average. Thus, longer trains are a logical way to move more traffic with fewer crew starts and changes. Only operating factors limit train length: The mechanical ability to reach its destination without stalling, breaking, or derailing, and the territorial ability to avoid collisions (such as adequate-length sidings on single-track segments) and to not park too long over road crossings.

Makes sense on paper

The math can be worked out; what about the physics? NS intends to configure its longer consists with distributed power units (DPU) to provide uniform traction throughout the length of the train, and end of train (EOT) repeater systems to maintain immediate communication along the three miles between the head and end.

But no matter how sharp the pencil doing the calculations, that’s still a lot of train: ~250 cars of various ages and states of maintenance, held together by ~500 knuckles and several miles of pressurized air hose, rolling on ~2000 axles … At what point does risk outweigh reward?

Blocked crossings catch Federal eye

A new factor may be affecting that calculation. With concerns among local government agencies rising over more/longer grade crossing blockages – due in some part to longer trains – the FRA has launched a Blocked Crossing Reporting tool to collect information on where, when, for how long, and what impacts result from blocked highway-rail grade crossings.

The Federal government has no jurisdiction pertaining to blocked crossings, and the FRA is only seeking better understanding of the nationwide issue, as it relates to its own mission, which recognizes that blockages are often necessitated by “legitimate operating and/or safety-related reasons for a crossing to be occupied by a slow or idling train.” The agency also states that it may share information with stakeholders, including railroads, state and local governments, and other federal authorities.

Could it happen here?

Last week, NS ran ~190 empty auto racks west from Binghmapton. While the Patriot Corridor could theoretically handle an NS “monster train” – with autos being the only potential move with the necessary volume – it’s unlikely that one will run past Mechanicville (with the possible exception of autos), as life could get difficult fast for a stall east of Deerfield.