"Although available data indicate that the average freight train has about 70 cars, it has become more and more common in the industry to have more."
The American rail freight industry has been put under the spotlight by a US government organisation, after voicing concerns that the current rate of development could be unsafe and create delays.
The disquiet comes from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has said that some rail freight operators are using as many as 200 trains. Presently the rail freight industry in the US isn’t subject to any regulation relating to the length of trains, leading to a situation where the 70-train average has been in excess of 120, according to a member of the GAO, Peter DeFazio.
The reason behind the lengthening of freight trains is primarily a financial one, with rail freight operators able to increase their margins by pulling more trains that can carry more goods. It also makes financial sense in terms of manpower, due to the fact there is currently no stipulation that crew members need to be increased as a train’s length increases.
DeFazio made his concerns public in a letter to GAO’s Gene Dodaro, the controller general of the independent audit organisation who was appointed by the president, in which he argued that the trend had to be reversed to strengthen safety and improve efficiency. “Although available data indicate that the average freight train has about 70 cars, it has become more and more common in the industry to have more. Unit trains, for example, carry one commodity — such as coal or crude oil — to a single destination and may consist of 80 to 120 cars or more,” said DeFazio.
The latest development comes around four months after a 178-carriage freight train carrying hazardous chemicals operated by CSX, one of the largest freight operators in the US, derailed in Pennsylvania. The large spill that came as a result of the crash, although described as non-flammable and not a risk to the public, highlighted the potential damage that long freight trains can inflict. An even longer train also came to a bad end in Florida, where a 192-car train, also operated by CSX, spilt molten sulfur onto the tracks.
As reported in Reuters, the GAO will begin an investigation related to the safety and impacts of longer trains in February – created following a letter from DeFazio, who said his office had been sent complaints regarding safety and traffic jams, specifically at rail crossings.