Market Matters Blog

Long Trains Get Longer; Time to Put the Brakes on Size?

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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A Union Pacific train passes another train on a double track as it moves through San Antonio, Texas. As train sizes grow, so do fears of safety issues. That has led to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) being asked to study the effects of longer freight trains. (DTN photo by Mary Kennedy)

Long freight trains have continued to get longer. Has the time come to put the brakes on how long these trains are allowed to be? That's a question two members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have asked the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) to help answer.

Committee ranking members Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. and Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass., have asked the GAO to study the effects of longer freight trains, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) noted in a recent news story on their website. Currently, the length of trains is not regulated.

Jen Gilbreath Adler, communications director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sent DTN a copy of the letter, dated Nov. 7, 2017, that DeFazio and Capuano sent to the GAO. In it, the two started out by noting, "On August 2, 2017, a CSX train consisting of five locomotives and 178 rail cars of mixed freight, including flammable and hazardous liquid, derailed in Hyndman, Pennsylvania." This derailment was one of the many reasons the two said they were asking GAO to do this study.

"Recent press reports indicate that some railroads are now operating trains with close to 200 or more cars that are more than 2 miles long," they wrote. "We have concerns that longer trains can create unusually long delays at grade crossings and may pose safety risks to train crews and the public." (To read the full letter, visit…)

"We appreciate that these congressional leaders have asked for a review of these dangerously long trains," said SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich. "This issue was also addressed by John Risch, our national legislative director, at a recent STB hearing."

In the news release on the SMART website, it was noted that Risch appeared Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C., before the Surface Transportation Board (STB) at a listening session focused on problems with CSX's service. "Urging CSX to do better will not fix the problems that excessively long trains cause," Risch said during his testimony.

In his testimony, Risch asked the STB to immediately restrict train lengths to not exceed the length of the sidings on lines these trains operate on. Or, at the very least, conduct an investigation on the effect train lengths have on service and safety in the industry, he said.

"I wrote the FRA last April asking for action on this issue and they have so far not even responded to my letter. They have no Administrator and are reluctant to do anything until they do," said Risch.

Here is a link to Risch's full testimony in which he points out how excessively long trains "cause all sorts of logistical problems that cause tremendous amounts of delay wherever they go." (…)

The STB is unlikely to take action on this issue any time soon. They are currently down to two members, and until they add three more, their hands are pretty much tied as far as major decision-making. They still have a few very "hot-button" issues that have been hanging in the balance for well over a year that need to be resolved before adding anymore on their plate.

I spoke via email with Chuck Young, managing director of public affairs for GAO, and he confirmed that, "We received a request from Congressmen DeFazio and Capuano to look at safety and other impacts of longer trains. We accepted their request and the work is expected to get underway in February." The study will include the CSX, the Union Pacific and all other major railroads who have been adding more cars to a "single" train for the sake of adding to their profits.

I can't help but note that this Doobie Brothers song rang through my head as I wrote this story: "Down around the corner, half a mile from here... You see them long trains runnin'....."

And they get longer and longer.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

Follow Mary Kennedy on Twitter @MaryCKenn



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