Monster trains and the risks they entail


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.



  1. This issue also impacts the railroad-adjacent part of society. Sidings aren't generally built in the middle of nowhere. There are towns nearby. When the giant train stops, it cuts off traffic for a half hour or more. Unless there is an overpass, you simply can't get from one part of town to another.

  2. I grew up in a multigenerational railroad family. Dad spanned the end of steam and the beginning of diesel. I remember the HIGHLY detailed tests regarding everything but blades of grass and flowers along the line (no speedometer on steam, so landmarks and certified-jeweler-calibrated pocket watch required), and I remember his complaining about "another 100-car" train. Heh. "Only" 100 cars.

    I will definitely read the letter.

  3. I don't understand the reason why the railroads would want to do this. I mean, AIUI, the middle locomotives in the train also have engineers on them. So why not split the train into two or three anyway?

    I presume there is a reason that makes sense to someone. I don't understand what it is because any one with any experience in failure analysis knows that the more moving parts you have the more likely one of them will fail. Trains have many many single points of failure – effectively each car is a collection of SPOFs and the more cars you have the more likely you are to get a failure. This is basic engineering/probability.

  4. @Francis – the reason is in the name – precision scheduling. The MBA's in the office want the trains to run on schedules. And workers are just more interchangeable cogs in the machine to these types.

    This is what happens when computer simulations replace practical experience.

  5. Yet another example of Management By Algorithm.

    When reality doesn't match the model, they try to change reality instead of questioning the model…

    This is becoming the norm WAY too many places. COVID measures were another glorious example of this…

  6. Not useful for the average reader to talk about how long a train is rather than how many cars it is. We used to count cars when I lived by a crossing (in Israel). I remember the long trains being 100 to 140 (to be fair, over 45 years ago). How many cars are in these "super trains"? What is the author recommending? I don't see three mile trains around here but on the other hand we are in a corner and most trains are headed to or from Canada or one of the refineries or smelters, rather than transporting goods across the country.

  7. I am only seeing 12 US derailments in 2020, and 2 of those were intentional (one by the crew, one by a saboteur), and 2 were due to collisions. Is there a better database somewhere which would indicate this is a bigger problem?

  8. Beancounter Supremacy strikes again!
    When predicted cost savings are the top priority, and fungible Management has no clue about how the particular business works in real life, everything is optimized for shaving off pennies when everything goes to plan.
    The costs incurred when things don't go to plan can't be factored in, because the Plan doesn't predict them. Besides, insurance will take care of that, right?
    And so it is that putting all the eggs in as few baskets as possible has become a virtue.

  9. Francis,

    The middle and rear locomotives don't have crews on board. They are remotely controlled via radio link from the head locomotive.

  10. This letter is all true. And worse. Shoving a long train back with a conductor on the last car is hell. He's so far back that radio communication for the movement is spotty. Controlling the slack on the cars so that you don't whiplash the conductor right off the end is already a bitch, but the combination of the extra length, lack of power allowed due to cost cutting and then the railroads own rules on how I can use the cars brakes limit my ability to control that slack.

  11. I thought it was interesting in that we're having the same root-cause issues in the maritime trade.

    The challenge I see is that there is no single-source for this issue- it's a symptom, and one that the writer hasn't detailed sufficiently IMHO. Now, I'm both home on leave and mildly hung over and thus fuzzy-headed in my thinking, so I can't do it justice yet either, but I see an issue with labor pool issues masking the impact of risk management policies with a concurrent deemphasis on efficiency in favor of cost containment. So, 4 things jump out to me, and all in interplay. There are more that come to mind.
    Railroads and ships are seeing a decrease in the labor pool as proportional salaries haven't kept up with the standard of living even before Bidenflation. The jobs are less attractive than they once were, and pay a lot less (when accounting for purchase power over time), you have a funny side effect where this concentrates the talent in the labor pool so you have a higher proportion of older, experienced and skilled labor in the pool than in the past- that is to say, the average age, skill and experience is greater in the labor pool despite there being less people.
    Now, take that with modern Risk Management business practices- assigning blame is always mandatory in an incident report, and human error can always be inferred as an issue even when it is not explicitly stated- that is, points in an error chain can always be found, someone has to go under the bus, and management, not operators, write the reports. Oh, the operators have 'stop work authority' and so they're not supposed to cave in to implicit management pressure in dealing with subacute issues, but of course they do because that's how you keep your job.
    I'll muddy the waters more and note too that efficiency can decline without becoming problematic if cost containment can mask the decline in efficiency. So the giant trains can create delays, be inconvenient and dangerous, but until the negatives of running giant trains increase sufficient to make them less desireable and profitable, or less tolerated, shit will continue to flow downhill.

  12. The last few comments seem to hint at a private(ish)-sector outbreak of Pessimal Manning. Or, rather, manning on the assumption that conditions will remain optimal. Which is a fine assumption, until it suddenly isn't.

  13. Pessimal planning. I haven't heard that term before, but that's spot on.

    Several years ago we were having another 'melt-down'. I don't remember if it was extra traffic or weather related. Anyway, the brain trusts had a 'plan'. Whatever it was. One of them told me what the 'plan' was and it seemed to me a bit overreliant on everything working exactly. Nothing does, ever. So I asked him what the alternate or back up was for if the plan didn't work out. He said, and I quote, "having a plan for failure is planning to fail". Flabergasted me to say the least.

  14. GuardDuck: I've been hearing interesting things about how the Navy's "Optimal Manning" thing has been turning out, and figured "Pessimal" might have been the word they were looking for.
    (Everything's tickety-boo until there's a fire, or a sailor is sick or injured, or crew fatigue sets in, or anything else goes wrong.)

  15. @huardduck he warped, spindled and mutilated the original.

    Failing to plan is planning to fail.

  16. While the letter writer has a valid point, I strongly recommend doing a little more research before assuming that all trains are 'Monsters'
    First off accidents involving trains, especially when factoring the number of miles and the amount of freight by ton carried, are minimal. Secondly, the vast, vast majority of accidents are caused by idiots who seem to think that they can walk on, ride, sit on, or cross tracks without looking. It is very hard to get killed by a train, unless you are on the track. If you need to cross the track, clear the box, don't try to beat that light, and don't squeeze through. No crossing guards because it is a minor road? Stop, open your window, listen/look then cross. Pretty simple threat reduction.
    For research purposes start here:
    The statistics from the the FRA are very good because not reporting incidents is very much a 'bad' thing.
    There is lots of risk in life. There is risk in trains and in the operation. It is about as far down the list as it can go though.

  17. Yes, monster trains are a problem. But…

    Most railways have mega-trains that transit the area, and break off 'local' freight (either picking up or dropping off from the mega-train, or just moving within the region or section of railway itself) so doing a 3 car pickup from a brick supplier with one's mega-train isn't a normal practice, at least on east coast railways.

    Another thing that will make you all feel better is recent rail regulations require tanker cars to be basically up-armored, significantly up-armored, and with lots and lots of safety equipment. The changes, pretty much fleetwide, have been done and spills and leaks have dropped significantly.

    As to rail fatalities, it is mostly either suicidal idiots, or drug users that are getting killed and causing derails and incidents. I don't know what part of taking drugs makes one want to go sit on the local railway and nod off but it is a thing.

    Rail traffic is still safer, far safer, than road traffic.

    But… Yes, the MBA attitude has affected some rail-lines. And stupid government regulations and policies haven't made it any easier.

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