Train crossing blues and the likelihood they'll worsen | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Train crossing blues and the likelihood they'll worsen

Posted By on Sat, Mar 16, 2019 at 8:18 AM

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Add Peach Orchard in Northeast Arkansas to the communities with long-running problems with blockage of rail crossings by stopped Union Pacific trains. KAIT reported on the community's complaints last week. It's a problem, says a rail union lobbyist, that could get worse.
Fox 16 reported earlier this week on the seven-hour blockage of a crossing near Hensley in Pulaski County. Union Pacific, which told KAIT it had no "record" of problems in Peach Orchard, apologized for the disruption in Hensley and put it down to a new system efficiency plan.

Response to the Hensley item reported here was interesting.

* First came Peach Orchard's situation, in a comment from Pam Lowe:

The small town of Peach Orchard in northeast Arkansas has also had this issue of trains blocking their crossings for hours at a time for some time. Despite calls from Mayor Dianne Neill, Union Pacific has never addressed the problem for residents. The mayor stated that excuses are bounced between Burlington Northern and Union Pacific, who control the tracks.
* Then came a reader who quoted from state law on the process for complaining about train blockages. Understand that railroads have long been among the most powerful lobby groups at the legislature. Bottom line: Formal complaints to railroads about crossing blockage must be made in writing by certified mail. If the complaint isn't dealt with satisfactorily, an appeal can be made to the Highway Commission. In about three months, a hearing can be held and THEN there are potential small fines. They an be appealed by the railroad to circuit court. It's a system that doesn't appear to encourage formal complaints against railroads.

* UPDATE: Luke Matheson of the Pine Bluff Commercial also points me to his coverage of multiple blockages of crossings in Humphrey by Union Pacific trains for extended periods. Union Pacific blamed "congestion." The mayor said he'd been told a crew ran out of hours and had to be replaced by relief crews.

* Then came a letter from Gerald S. Sale III, the lobbyist for the union that represents railroad workers — the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and TransportatiWorkers. He predicts problems like those at Hensley and Peach Orchard could happen more frequently. I share his letter in full because I found it ana informative account of railroad operation issues.

I have been a Conductor for going on 16 years now, and I want to voice my concerns regarding rail safety across our state. Union Pacific has unfortunately started to adopt a failed policy known as "Precision scheduled Railroading." This philosophy pioneered by the late E. Hunter Harrison has been proven to be a longterm failure. While it has provided short term gains for shareholders, it erodes both commerce and safety long term. We need to look no further than to CSX the most recent victim to this philosophy. My main concern is and always will be my safety and the safety of our membership and the citizenry of Arkansas. We have seen crossing accidents, derailments, breakdowns, and blocked crossing skyrocket when railroads such as CSX have attempted to make these changes. Current CSX CEO James Foote has been forced to begin an apology tour for the delays and congestion; commerce and public transportation have experienced; due to these decisions. One of the main principles of this philosophy; and my main concern; is to lengthen trains. We already have trains reaching as long as one and a half miles or around 8,000 feet long. When trains grow beyond this length public safety and interruptions to commerce become a significant concern. CSX experienced a rise in delays, derailments, crossing accidents, and blocked crossings due to this implementation. Union Pacific has followed suit, and we are beginning to see trains grow from 8,000 feet up to 12,000 feet. I'm concerned both for my safety and for the safety of the communities we travel through. Below I have included a few examples as to why this will affect our entire state.

A three-mile-long train simply goes slower than a one-mile long train. It takes longer to start and get to top speed which is almost never the maximum allowable speed because they are just too heavy and hard to handle. Slowing down for speed restrictions and getting back up to speed takes far more time.

Most rail main lines in our State are single-track, so when one train meets another train coming in the opposite direction one of the trains must pull into a siding to let the other train pass. There are very few sidings that are long enough to hold a 2-3-mile-long train; I can provide you with the exact numbers; meaning if the long train takes the siding, both trains must stop, and there is what we call a “saw-by” causing significant delay. If both trains are too long, we have an incredible event called a “double saw-by” which can take hours for one to pass the other.

Train operations require that the crew in the lead locomotive maintain constant communications with the rear locomotives or the device on the rear car of the train. When these communications fail, the train is restricted to 30 mph, and on grades of more than 2%, the train is required to stop. The longer the train, the more these communications fail. This loss of communications is very common when trains go around curves or go over the tops of mountains.

The longer the train, the higher the probability of mechanical failure. More cars mean more problems. Excessively long trains are also far more likely to break-in-two which can cause hours of delay. When there is a mechanical problem or break-in-two, the conductor of the train must walk back from the lead locomotive to deal with the problem. When the train is two miles long or longer, and the conductors’ portable radio frequently fails to communicate with the locomotive causing significant delay. A train uses air for its braking system and the longer the train, the harder it is to maintain adequate air in the system.

Many engineers have little to no experience operating these excessively long trains. We have many instances of these trains breaking in two and causing significant delays, including delaying an Amtrak train for 9 hours on a siding.

When a train is too long to fit into a yard track, the train must be separated and put on two or more tracks, adding to yard congestion and additional delay.

The longer the train, the more crossings that are blocked and they are blocked for longer periods of time. Causing safety concerns. This is a concern for all state commerce but especially for first responders. Extended periods of crossings being blocked usually leads to impatience in the public sphere. This impatience, unfortunately, tend to end with people attempting to outrun trains.

Crews cannot reliably hear the report of wayside defect detectors when trains exceed 12,000 feet. When that happens, the train must often stop and follow procedures to make sure their train is safe to proceed.

Required brake tests take longer on a long train. Some brake tests require the inspection of every car and walking a 3-mile-long train to the end and back is 6 miles. Add to that a portable radio that fails to transmit that far, and the result is substantial train delay.

These are just a few examples of what can happen if this is allowed in our state. The State Legislature could pass a law restricting train length due to these safety concerns. Currently, Missouri is attempting to pass a bill restricting train length. Union Pacific is acting irresponsibly and ignoring its obligation to the citizens of Arkansas. Precision railroading has been proven a short term success and a long term failure as a business plan everywhere its been implemented. Its implementations have proven to be a detriment to commerce, and a safety disaster. UP reported close to 6 billion in revenue last year. They also took home a hefty 5.9 billion in tax reductions due to the most recent tax cuts. This illustrates how these are changes not out of necessity but pure greed. We have an office here in Little Rock and I would love to speak with you regarding this issue. The public has a right to know what Union Pacific has in store for them.

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