Yesterday I posted an article about weird personnel policies at the major US railroads. In a comment to that post, reader David Eyk said:
Another factor is the increasingly-common practice of miles-long "Precision Scheduled Railroad" monster trains, and the inevitable accompanying derailments. This letter to the Surface Transportation Board describes the problem from a train engineer's perspective.
I read that letter with great interest - and great concern. I had no idea about some of the issues (particularly the dangers) involved. I'm going to reproduce some of it here, and urge you to click over there to read the rest.
I will address one issue on the topic of service shortages: Precision Scheduled Railroad (PSR) monster trains.
. . .
It is impossible to get goods to market in a timely way, when the train has derailed. Monster trains keep derailing to the point where it seems ... this has become normalized and acceptable ... Derailments of monster trains have become so frequent, that in my little section of the U.S. economy (although a major artery) it has become a blur. It is hard to keep them straight.
. . .
To run even a, say, “simple” traditional grain train—6,700 feet, 28 million pounds—through the ice fog of a late February night, applying the physics of the horsepower and weight to a landscape you cannot see, but must know—every inch of, every hill and dip, every crossing, every signal mast is something no office worker can imagine. It is lived truth. Not one mistake can be erased, filed away ... waiting for that call to run a 16,450-foot PSR train is dreadful: We all know what can happen, at any moment. A pallor of dread for 12 to more than 17 hours awaits. These trains are not already big enough for the carrier: We must pick up more cars for the PSR dream, with a conductor 13,800-feet away, reversing into a rail yard for more cars.
. . .
From a recent letter to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Member Subcommittee on Railways, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials:
“PSR has [made] engineer’s trains almost impossible to control. Shareholders roll the dice with communities, cities and the environment daily. They don’t live here. Trains have more than doubled in length. Imagine a train 16,400 feet in length weighing 17,500 tons: That is three miles, 560 feet and 35 million pounds. One train. And it is hauling hazmat, tanks of say, chlorine gas, or anhydrous ammonia. Just one tank car alone weighs 131 tons, that is 262,000 pounds. To give an example from history, 262,000 pounds of chlorine gas is approximately two-thirds of what the German army used during the trench warfare of all of WWI. One tank car alone.
“And then we pick up more enroute! My conductor is three miles away while I reverse this train into an active rail yard! Crossings don’t matter, and communities? Are you kidding? No sane country would move materials like this. These trains exceed the coupler and drawbar limits of the very cars themselves. The risks the Class I carriers are taking is a race to disaster. It is absolutely dreadful and grotesque.
Another Precision Scheduled Railroading factor in supply chain failure: Even when the majority of these PSR trains make it, without dramatic ends, they rarely get across the road during a crew members hours of service (HOS) time limit, which is 12 hours. Several factors:
“The rail infrastructure, in particular rail yards and sidings, were designed and built during the great Industrial Age. They did a lot of things right: they overbuilt bridges, for one. But it is not a failure of imagination that they could not foresee, from a sane perspective, that someday the bosses would want to normalize 15,000-foot trains.
“Yards and sidings do not accommodate this scale. It is a clash of function and design. So, imagine this: A 15,800-foot train with distributed power locomotives placed in the middle and at the rear of a train, comes to work a station with 4,500-foot tracks and needs to pick up and set out cars in the middle and rear of the train. This will not be lickety-split.
“Yes: Crew after crew expires on HOS. It is incredibly tense work shoving 12,720 feet of train, with a human being holding on all the way back there, well over two miles away, in reverse, into a rail yard, to pick up, say, 23 more cars. To then add those cars and run a battery of required air tests on the train, before departure. The scale of these trains compounds the time required to make these moves many-fold. Sometimes, in the winter, the train’s brake system cannot be adequately recharged to allow the train to depart. And while this is happening, another monster train is waiting outside town (losing on-duty time) to do more of the same! Now, both trains need to be recrewed. This is another reason people are leaving: There is no human being I know who can take being called at 7 PM for a 9 PM job, and go through this to finally arrive at the hotel at 2 PM, without an impact on their wellbeing. It is brutal.”
There's more at the link. Thanks, Mr. Eyk, for bringing it to our attention.
I'm certainly going to be thinking about that letter the next time (in other words, today) I see and hear one of these monster trains thundering through the small town where we live, or have to wait at a level crossing for it to pass before I can continue my own journey. I wonder what it'll be carrying? I wonder how safe each and every rail car is - when it was last serviced, the condition of its coupling gear and wheel bearings and brakes, the weight it's carrying, the speed at which it's moving . . . ?
All I can say is, my hat's off to anyone who takes on a job like that. The stress must be beyond most people's imagination. Also, if something goes badly wrong and the train is involved in a major derailment or collision, the crew's safety is probably anything but guaranteed. The inertia built up by such weights, at such speeds, makes it impossible to slow down or stop in any meaningfully short distance. The crew are going to have to jump for their lives (at speeds almost guaranteed to cause serious injury or death) or ride it all the way to impact, in the desperate hope they won't be smeared all over the wreckage like strawberry jam. That's not much of a choice.
Why are we not paying more attention to this as an urgent national safety issue? Why are the news media not talking about it? Is it because the "money men" are pulling strings to make sure they don't? I'm willing to concede that's a very likely possibility. At any rate, I highly recommend reading the whole letter linked above, then contacting your elected representatives and making a fuss about this. It's a safety issue that concerns all of us.
When I think of the long, long trains of tank cars and chemical cars that I see rumbling through our little town every single day, and realize that even one of those cars carries enough potentially lethal cargo to kill every person within city limits in a matter of minutes . . . it puts a whole new perspective on rail safety.