Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

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Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby SouthernRailway » Sun Mar 06, 2016 8:43 pm

I may be wrong, but by comparison to planes and trucks, freight railroads seem to be low-margin businesses, specializing in hauling bulk, non-time-sensitive freight. Since freight trains are slow, freight railroads can't charge premium prices for speedy delivery.

With all of the emphasis on high(er) speed passenger trains, and government funds that are or could be available for high-speed rail infrastructure, why don't Class Is support construction of high-speed tracks for both freight and passenger trains (which would supplement, not replace, tracks currently used by freight trains)?

If HSR tracks were built in various places around the US, and if freight railroads could also use them for freight trains, wouldn't that open up a new business model for freight railroads: time-sensitive, high-margin freight?

What am I missing here? Yes, the cost of those tracks would be significant, and the operational costs of high-speed freight trains would be high, but so would the revenues. (I know that a Class I couldn't operate 100-car freight trains at 180 mph; if high-speed freight trains existed, I'd expect them to be maybe 20 cars long, using equipment built specially for HSR operation, which could be unlike any current freight trains.) I wouldn't expect Class Is to be able to pay for miles of 180-mph track, but surely the lobbying power of Class Is, combined with some governments' emphasis on HSR passenger trains, could result in government funds for construction.

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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby CLamb » Mon Mar 07, 2016 1:06 am

Railroads formerly did this with the Railroad Express Agency.

The problem as I see it is that the market for the service is door to door not terminal to terminal. The tracks just don't go to enough places. Transferring at a terminal wastes valuable time. Air transport is fast enough that it can make up for the time spent transferring from a terminal to motor truck for local delivery--rail can't.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby ExCon90 » Mon Mar 07, 2016 3:21 pm

Very true--and the shorter the haul the greater the delaying effect of the transfer, since the transfer takes the same time and money on a 100-mile haul as on 1000 miles. As to nighttime use, when the first Shinkansen was planned in Japan the possibility of operating freight trains at night was considered, but it was found that they needed the night hours for maintenance. I think DB in Germany had a similar experience with the high-speed Neubaustrecken (NBS); it's physically possible to operate freight trains on those lines, but they need the night hours for maintenance.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby mtuandrew » Tue Mar 08, 2016 10:44 am

We've discussed this off and on, for some reason the D&H comes to mind as the last place I remember us discussing it. I'd suggested single-stack well cars with high-speed trucks and low-slack couplers for >79 mph operation, and I'd stand by that suggestion were this actually implemented. Others pointed out to me that the Santa Fe operated very fast freights (the Super Cs) in the 1970s and 1980s, but found that few customers would pay the necessary premiums to make the added track maintenance worthwhile.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby ExCon90 » Tue Mar 08, 2016 4:38 pm

That's always been the problem--the rate ceiling is what the truckers will charge. SR is correct that shorter trains of about 20 cars would probably be necessary, but compared to a 100-car train the crew costs alone are 5 times as much per container. An interesting study was done by Darryl Wyckoff (sp?) in the 1970's in which truck drivers (all owner-operators) were interviewed at truck stops; most drivers were not fully conscious of just how little they were actually making, since operating expenses--business expenses, actually--come out of their total income. Their major motivation was they just loved driving an 18-wheeler and being out on the road. Now, since the 1970's there aren't as many new truck drivers coming along, and things are getting tighter, but until trucking has to bear more of its actual costs (highway pavements aren't 18-24 inches thick for all those four-wheel passenger sedans), truck rates will hold down rail rates.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby twropr » Tue Mar 08, 2016 8:27 pm

I think that the Class I's are overlooking some opportunities for better equipment utilization by keeping the freight and intermodal speeds at 50 and 60 MPH for the most part. The best example that comes to mind if CSX's Juice Train, which runs with about 16 boxcars in FL and has more cars added from the FEC in Jacksonville. The train is generally powered by two six-axle units and is held to 60 MPH. By re-equipping it with true passenger trucks and increasing speed to 79 MPH, I would not be surprised if a trainset could be saved, and there would be transportation savings associated with longer crew districts and less wear and tear on the brakes due to fewer stops.
When Amtrak ran the MHCs trailing the passenger cars a few years back the passenger road was able to handle some commodities such as canned soup and apples that are probably moving truck again. With the East Coast ports gearing up for the expanded Panama Canal traffic, there may be westbound traffic that did not exist a few years back to allow the equipment that would bring commodities east to be sent back west under load. Again, I would think that higher max speed and fewer stops to change crews would improve running time and allow the boxcars and intermodals to be more truck competitive.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby YamaOfParadise » Wed Mar 09, 2016 2:31 pm

I would suspect a problem with intermingling of high-speed freight and high-speed rail, particularly when infrastructure is built tailor for high-speed passenger service, is that the disparity between stopping distances of a freight train vs. passenger train would increase with higher speed; I'm not positive of this, and some quick searching isn't yielding an answer, but I don't think it scales linearly. Assuming it's true, that would pose some issues with things like signal spacing.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby Zeke » Sun Mar 13, 2016 3:53 pm

As a general rule the FRA is averse to placing high speed passenger trains in a traffic mix with high speed freight trains. The what ifs are quite ugly if a freight derails in the face of a high speed passenger train. This was the main impetus to removing the heavy freight traffic from the NEC in the mid seventies when Conrail came along and provided alternate freight main lines to the south and west.

Signal engineers mapping out signal placement and length of blocks always take into account the type of train that will operate with the most inefficient braking curve over that portion of railroad. On the passenger only NEC a MU Metroliner had the most efficient braking curve and a E-60 with a LD heritage train had the least efficient braking from scheduled speed to a full stop. Thus the signals and length of blocks were spaced accordingly and in a few spots blocks were lengthened by phantom cab signal drops with the attendant activation of speed control.

Trains like the Acela operating at 150 mph in a few spots are approaching the take off speed of a passenger airliner that lift off between 160 to 180 knots according to Take off weight and power settings. Crashes at those speeds are generally fatal affairs. So it is a factor regarding safety concerns in attempting to mix freight and HSR on the same stretch of railroad. Also as touched on in this thread as speed goes up maintenance cost increase exponentially. Most RR freight shippers want Rolls Royce service at Volkswagen freight rates and will not entertain the higher rates needed to maintain this service and produce a profit for the carriers. Mag Lev might be the technology that will provide HS freight service. If a Mag Lev train on a private ROW could go from New York to Chicago in three hours why fly air freight planes between those points. UPS and Fed EX would jump on it in second.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby Engineer Spike » Tue May 10, 2016 4:02 pm

Everything is based on the rates, as has been pointed out. There are other factors based on the money available. Higher speeds may be justified on high volume lines. There is a certain financial sweet spot for train speeds.

The higher the speeds, the more it costs. Track has to be maintained to higher tolerances for high speed. More fuel is used, and more power is needed to maintain this speed. This sweet spot is where the costs of more equipment and crews vs. the cost of high speed. Customer demand for high speed also comes into play. There has to be a large enough market to pay for the superior transit times.

Even many trucking companies govern the trucks to 60-65 mph, even though most state speed limits are 65 mph, or more. Fuel costs climb for higher speeds.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby ExCon90 » Wed May 11, 2016 3:33 pm

The relatively low overall speed of a freight car from origin to destination is due largely to time spent being classified in yards and awaiting the next departure. In the 1960's the German Federal freight schedules showed yards dispatching major classifications every 6 hours, less busy ones every 8 hours--and, given the size of their freight yards, they probably had to. Of course track configurations necessitated much shorter trains than we run here, but it did mean less sitting around in yards. The tradeoff here would be the higher crew costs of running shorter trains oftener versus the improved equipment utilization and possible increased traffic (and I assume the handling characteristics of shorter trains would enable faster over-the-road speeds as well). A sidebar question I've sometimes wondered about: whether the buffers and link-and-screw couplings in Europe reduce or eliminate slack action to the extent of limiting the tonnage that a locomotive could start, and thus train length.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby Engineer Spike » Thu May 12, 2016 4:24 pm

The buffers are spring loaded, so I'd say that trains in Europe have slack. The lengths of the trains don't rule out higher speed. The only drawback is when the speed limit rises, the whole train needs to be past it to accelerate.

The real limiter is train weight. More weight means more power is needed to maintain the high speeds. It also means that heavier trains need to run slower, due to stopping distances. Many railroads slow down trains which have over 100 ton/brake valve. The former Santa Fe would allow 70mph, if under 80t/brake, for intermodal, and autos.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby SemperFidelis » Thu May 12, 2016 4:48 pm

I have read that European coupling systems do, indeed, limit the starting abilities of locomotives as experienced locomotive engineers use the slack (sometimes many carlengths' worth in longer US trains) to assist in getting heavy loads started.

Whether or not this is true would probably be better addressed by an engineer who has operated both systems.
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Re: Why no high(er)-speed freight trains?

Postby DutchRailnut » Fri May 13, 2016 8:54 am

in older days yes that is how freight trains in Europe were started, a heavy train would be bunched up (backing up) then slowly engine would go forward and letting each coupler nudge next car into motion.
These days even European trains have engines with higher hp, specially with electric power, but most freight trains run with no more than 40 cars and with car weight limited to 80 tons for 4 axle car.
Axle load is still a limiting factor.
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