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Be very afraid: UP toying with monster trains

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POSTED August 20, 2010 1:52 a.m.
Union Pacific Railroad unleashed what critics are dubbing “the monster train” on unsuspecting Southern Californians earlier this year.

The train was a record setting 3.4 miles long or almost three times the length of a typical freight train. Instead of the average 70-car freight train hauling 3,000 tons it pulled 295 cars with 618 piggy-backed shipping containers hauling 15,500 tons.

This was all done as an experiment to see how much more efficient Union Pacific could become by putting together longer trains. UP officials contend by increasing the average train length up to 15 percent they can reduce their carbon footprint as well as extend the life of their tracks.

The real question is how many lives will be shortened because of longer UP trains?

Three times longer trains block at-grade crossing three times longer. That would mean longer delays for fire and ambulances in life threatening emergencies.

This isn’t an academic question for Manteca or Lathrop residents. The Union Pacific is in the process of quadrupling its intermodal yard that moves freight in truck containers to rail flatbed cars. The monster train on the railroad’s Sunset Route from Dallas to Ontario was an intermodal train.

While UP made it clear that the one-time train of 3.4 miles was simply an experiment there is no federal law limiting how long trains can end up being.

That means the railroad will be free to lengthen trains as they see fit if tracks will accommodate them.

Imagine, if you will, waiting three times longer for a train passing through Manteca at the Main Street, Yosemite Avenue, Center Street, Union Road, Airport Way, Woodward Avenue, or Spreckels Avenue crossings.

It gets worse. What will happen if longer trains come in and out of the Lathrop intermodal operation? Longer trains will block more crossings and for even longer periods of time as the intermodal trains come to a stop and then drop off flatcars.

UP is not the only railroad toying with longer and longer freight trains to essentially reduce their costs and increase profits under the guise of being worried about the environment.

What makes this a tad disingenuous is that railroads are fighting attempts by truckers to increase the weight and length of trucks allowed on the interstate system. The reason? The railroads claim there are safety considerations but the more a truck can haul the more completive they are against the railroads.

As for claims of fewer emissions by taking 600 18-wheelers off the roads, what of the tens of thousands of cars that will idle longer at railroad crossings waiting for monster trains to pass?

Then there is the question of the efficiency of other businesses. How much money would be lost by delivery companies and such because their employees are sitting in company vehicles three times longer trying to cross railroads?

None of this should surprise you.

Before Hiram Johnson attained the governorship in California in 1911 and liked minded progressives prevailed nationwide, the railroads pretty much had their way. They had an economic chokehold on many California communities because they had a freight and passenger service monopoly and essentially set prices without fear of competition. Allowing the railroads to gain the upper hand on trucking in the name of reducing polluting and increased efficiency for the railroads is akin to slicing off your arm to stop a finger from bleeding.

Railroads have a proven record and well-deserved reputation of not exactly being trustworthy when it comes to the public’s best interests.

Don’t expect any congressman suddenly to become a populist and push for federal regulations on train lengths.

Nor can you expect any cheap local remedy. One bridge crossing of the railroad tracks would easily run into the $8 million to $10 million range.

There is a clear danger to allowing trains to keep getting longer. Union Pacific has already started increasing typical trains by 10 to 15 percent. The real question that must be answered is how long is long enough in terms of the general public’s best interests?

As it stands now, only the railroads are having that conversation and there is no federal law to cap their enthusiasm for reducing costs and increasing profits by rolling out longer and longer trains.
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