Regulators say railroads must examine how they build trains

Apr 7, 2023, 2:17 PM

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Federal regulators said Friday that railroads need to re-examine how they assemble their trains after a string of derailments in recent years that were at least partly caused by the way empty and loaded cars were mixed together with locomotives.

Heavy cars at the back of a train can push and pull against empty cars in the middle of a train as it goes over hills and around corners. Those forces have become more of a problem as the industry increasingly relies on longer trains with a wide variety of freight aboard.

Another factor complicating the issue is the industry’s practice of placing locomotives throughout trains. The locomotives can amplify the forces if they’re not used correctly.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s advisory cites six derailments since 2021 where those forces were a factor. They include a evacuation of Sibley, Iowa, for three days. Regulators say these kind of derailments are happening with increasing frequency.

But regulators didn’t mention the railroad safety as an example of this problem. The National Transportation Safety Board has said that an overheated bearing that caused an axle to fail on one of the railcars likely caused that derailment.

But it is still early in the East Palestine investigation so it’s not clear if the makeup of the train was also a factor.

“Railroads must prioritize proper train makeup to maintain safety, prevent accidents, and optimize train performance,” the railroad administration said in the advisory. “Further, all operating employees must be properly trained in these technologies and the handling of complex trains to ensure safe operation and minimize human error.”

All of the derailments the FRA mentioned involved trains with at least 125 cars. In every case an empty car was the first to come off the tracks. The order doesn’t specifically single out long trains, but the kind of forces regulators are concerned about are amplified in longer trains, especially if large blocks of empty cars are placed in the middle or front of a train. In three of the six derailments, hazardous chemicals were released, highlighting the potential dangers of these accidents.

The major freight railroads have all overhauled their operations in recent years to rely more on longer trains so they don’t need as many crews or locomotives. Now trains routinely stretch longer than two or even three miles (three to five kilometers) long.

As a train moves across uneven territory, its front half might be getting pulled up a hill while the back half is coming down and pushing forward against the rest of the cars. Those dynamics make it difficult for the engineer to manage.

“Think about going thru undulating territory sort of like a Slinky. You’re either trying to keep it stretched out or you’re trying to keep it all bunched together to control the forces from going in and out because that’s what causes derailments. And it causes train separations,” said Mark Wallace, who is second-highest ranking officer with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union. “The way to prevent this stuff from happening is to control the train lengths.”

A spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads trade group said the major freight railroads already use sophisticated computer software to help them build trains and properly distribute the weight. Not only is it important to consider where to put the loaded cars, but railroads also have to factor in that some goods are heavier than others and that the weight of the liquid inside a tank car will shift as the train moves. AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said the railroads will consider regulators’ recommendations.

“The industry is committed to productive conversations about how we continue to advance our shared goal of ensuring the safety of the trains that serve customers and communities across the nation,” Kahanek said.

A spokeswoman for Union Pacific, which handled three of the trains highlighted in the advisory, said the railroad is using high-tech tools to monitor train forces and makes adjustments as needed. Kristen South said UP has seen derailments decline along its network last year and this year, even as maximum train length reached 9,329 feet (2.8 kilometers).

“We constantly evaluate our processes and continue to work with government agencies and industry partners to further improve safety,” South said.

Norfolk Southern officials declined to comment on the advisory. That railroad was responsible for two of the derailments in the advisory, as well as the one in East Palestine.

Since the East Palestine derailment, testify twice at congressional hearings.

United States News

Associated Press

New Jersey house explosion hospitalizes 5 people, police say

WEST MILFORD, N.J. (AP) — Five people were transported to hospitals after an explosion at a New Jersey home on Friday night, police said. The house in West Milford was heavily damaged by the explosion around 9 p.m., the West Milford Police Department said in a statement. A sixth person at the scene refused additional […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Tropical Storm Ophelia close to landfall on the North Carolina coast, weather agency says

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Tropical Storm Ophelia was nearing landfall on the North Carolina coast early Saturday with the potential for damaging winds and dangerous surges of water, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Ophelia was about 25 miles (45 kilometers) southwest of Cape Lookout and about 70 miles (110 kilometers) east-northeast of Cape Fear. […]

6 hours ago

This Aug. 17, 2021 photo shows Quagga mussels cover the engine of a Bell P-39 Airacobra military pl...

Associated Press

Historians race to find Great Lakes shipwrecks before quagga mussels destroy the sites

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Great Lakes’ frigid fresh water used to keep shipwrecks so well preserved that divers could see dishes in the cupboards. Downed planes that spent decades underwater were left so pristine they could practically fly again when archaeologists finally discovered them. Now, an invasive mussel is destroying shipwrecks deep in the […]

7 hours ago

This image provided by Tulane University shows Nick Spitzer, host of the weekly public radio music ...

Associated Press

Louisiana folklorist and Mississippi blues musician among 2023 National Heritage Fellows

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana folklorist Nick Spitzer and Mississippi blues musician R.L. Boyce are among nine 2023 National Heritage Fellows set to be celebrated later this month by the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the nation’s highest honors in the folk and traditional arts. Spitzer and Boyce are scheduled to accept the […]

7 hours ago

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jers...

Associated Press

3rd Republican presidential debate is set for Nov. 8 in Miami, with the strictest qualifications yet

The third Republican presidential debate will be held in Miami on Nov. 8, a day after several states hold off-year elections.

9 hours ago

During the equinox, the Earth’s axis and its orbit line up so that both hemispheres get an equal ...

Associated Press

The fall equinox is here. What does that mean?

The equinox arrives on Saturday, marking the start of the fall season for the Northern Hemisphere. But what does that actually mean?

10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Importance of AC maintenance after Arizona’s excruciating heat wave

An air conditioning unit in Phoenix is vital to living a comfortable life inside, away from triple-digit heat.


Mayo Clinic

Game on! Expert sports physicals focused on you

With tryouts quickly approaching, now is the time for parents to schedule physicals for their student-athlete. The Arizona Interscholastic Association requires that all student-athletes must have a physical exam completed before participating in team practices or competition.



At Ability360, every day is Independence Day

With 100 different programs and services, more than 1,500 non-medically based home care staff, a world-renowned Sports & Fitness Center and over 15,000 people with disabilities served annually, across all ages and demographics, Ability360 is a nationwide leader in the disability community.

Regulators say railroads must examine how they build trains