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Safety, traffic concerns raised when 3.5-mile-long freight train rolls through L.A. Basin

January 12, 2010 |  1:16 pm
An apparently unprecedented super freight train -- extending some 3½ miles -- rolled through Southern California over the weekend, catching state regulators off guard and prompting concerns about potential safety risks and traffic delays, The Times has learned.

Union Pacific said the train was a test of equipment and ways to improve operating efficiency, but that the company does not have plans to run such trains regularly.

Some officials are worried it may be a harbinger. “I will be asking a lot more questions,” said Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano, whose San Gabriel Valley district includes part of the train route.

“If they’re testing to increase the size of trains in L.A., I have a problem with that.” 

The state Public Utilities Commission raced a team of personnel to Imperial County on Saturday to monitor the train as it wound its way toward the Inland Empire. The train originally left Texas on Friday night and reached its ultimate destination, a large intermodal facility near the Port of Long Beach, on Sunday.

“We were quite concerned about it, which was why we scrambled our people to be out there Saturday to essentially find out what was going on,” said Richard W. Clarke, who oversees rail safety at the state agency.
There are no state or federal limits on the length of trains or requirements to notify agencies about unusually long train configurations, officials said. Union Pacific said it did alert local federal regulators, who observed the train’s movement.

The 18,000-foot-long train was two to three times the length of a typical freight train and the largest known to operate in the state — and possibly the nation, Clark said.

Tracks were cleared so the train could run up to 70 mph, said Tom Lange, Union Pacific's spokesman. He said it would take three to five minutes for the train to clear a grade crossing.

The test was part of an effort to explore ways to “better serve our customers,” he said. Such trains actually reduce the chances of derailment, he said, because locomotive power is distributed along the train, reducing stress on couplers and other equipment.

In addition, while long trains may extend some waits, they reduce overall waiting time for motorists at crossings, Lange said. That’s because crossing signals begin stopping traffic 20 to 25 seconds before each train arrives. The long train tested over the weekend was the equivalent of three typical mile-long trains, which would have added 40 to 50 seconds to total motorist wait time.

In addition to concerns about lack of notice to state authorities, who regulate grade crossings, Clark said his agency wanted to ensure the massive train had adequate braking capacity and officials were on hand in case of extended delays for motorists and emergency vehicles, especially if the train was forced to stop for some reason.

No incidents were reported, but the commission staff is continuing to examine issues raised by such operations, Clark said.

The train, which carried furniture, clothing, electronics and other goods for export from Texas, was the longest ever assembled by Union Pacific, Lange said. Among other benefits, he said, such trains could remove hundreds of trucks from the road and save fuel compared to other modes of cargo transportation. Trains up to 12,500 feet—a little over two miles long—already are operated in the Los Angeles area, he said.  

He acknowledged longer trains can reduce costs of train crew requirements because the additional locomotives are controlled from the front cab.

A spokesman for the California chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen warned such “monster trains” raise a host of concerns.

“Nobody I know of in the railroad industry ever has run a train this size,” said Tim Smith, state legislative chairman for the union.

“We’re not trained for it. The longer the train, the more you have to consider the curvature of tracks...starting and stopping.”

--Rich Connell

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