Federal Advisory Urges Railroads to Review Effects of Long Trains on Communities

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
A freight train at a crossing in Forest Glen, Md., in September 2022.

The Federal Railroad Administration issued a formal safety advisory Thursday calling on railroads to review their operation of long trains and their effects on communities amid a surge in complaints about blocked railroad crossings.

The federal regulator also urged railroads to ensure that locomotive engineers are trained to handle long trains, which have become longer and heavier over the years, citing three recent derailments that involved trains more than two miles long.

“These incidents demonstrate the need for railroads and railroad employees to be particularly mindful of the complexities of operating longer trains,” FRA Administrator Amit Bose said in the order.

The order, which offers recommendations but does not require action, is the latest effort by the Transportation Department to address train safety in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical spill near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Freight railroads should identify areas in their networks that are affected by longer trains at railroad crossings, the FRA said, and take steps to reduce the effects, including working with local communities and emergency responders “to prevent or at least mitigate” disruptions from blocked crossings. Some railroads operate trains that are up to three miles long.

While trains of any length can block crossings, longer trains have exacerbated the problem. Trains block downtowns and rural neighborhoods across the nation, sometimes for hours or days, as they wait to enter congested rail yards or to switch crews.

Complaints have surged, with accounts about parked trains dividing communities, causing children to be late to school and delaying firetrucks from reaching burning homes. In some cases, ambulances have not been able to respond to emergencies.

Frequent blocked crossings have fueled efforts in state legislatures to restrict train lengths, even though states hold limited power over the nation’s railways. At least five states – Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia and Kansas – this year have weighed bills to restrict train lengths. Most are looking at restricting the length of trains to 1.6 miles.

Thursday’s safety advisory does not recommend limiting the length of trains, which the industry has consistently said have operated safely for decades.

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement that railroads and regulators share a goal of enhancing rail safety and minimizing effects on communities while transporting goods that are critical to the U.S. economy.

“The recommendations within this advisory align closely with the prudent steps railroads already take to do just that,” spokesperson Jessica Kahanek said. “The industry is committed to reviewing existing practices to see if there are areas for even greater safety improvement.”

In making the case for railroads to address community concerns, the FRA highlighted potential safety risks associated with blocked crossings, particularly how stopped trains can impede access to emergency services and lead frustrated people to crawl over or under rail cars.

There is no federal regulation limiting the length of trains. The FRA is working with the National Academy of Sciences on a federally funded study of trains that are longer than 7,500 feet, expected to be completed later this year. The FRA is also preparing a report to Congress on blocked crossings this year.

The advisory pushes railroads to take measures to address the complexities of running longer trains. Among other recommendations: using technologies and procedures to ensure there is no loss of communications to and from the head-end and rear-end units; identifying changes to areas such as crew training, train handling, brake inspection and maintenance requirements to ensure safe operations of longer trains; and completing data and detailed information after an incident occurs to better understand the factors that led to it.

A similar order on Feb. 7 raised concerns about improper placement of rail cars and locomotives, particularly in long trains, which the FRA said was a contributing factor in recent derailments. That order called on railroads to reevaluate the makeup of trains.

The latest advisory, the third from the agency in two months, again emphasizes that the operation of longer trains presents more-complex operational challenges, which it said “can be exacerbated by the weight and makeup of the trains.”

Improperly assembled trains are more susceptible to derailment, in part because of forces that can affect their stability. For example, industry and government research shows that excessive “in-train” forces – such as those affecting the distribution of weight – can cause a long, heavy train to derail or pull apart when on an incline or when a train enters a curve.

On March 4, a 2.5-mile-long Norfolk Southern train carrying mixed freight derailed as it passed through Springfield, Ohio. The train was carrying 17,966 tons, with most of the weight on the head and rear ends of the train, the FRA said, noting that the train makeup was a factor in the derailment.

“The derailment happened at the sag between ascending and descending grades, with short, empty rail cars designed to ship coiled steel being the first to derail,” the advisory said. “Buff forces peaked as the downhill portion of the train ran-in, causing the derailment of cars 70 through 72 (the short coil cars) and the subsequent pile-up.”

The FRA’s first advisory in late February urged railroads to improve their use of trackside safety detectors, which didn’t provide enough warning about a failing bearing that led to the early-February Ohio derailment.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has issued several safety measures and has called on Congress to raise fines for railroad safety violations.