Multitracking, technology, PSR, etc. can bring air/train benefits

At its most utilized point in 1916, route-miles of common-carrier railroad track numbered 254,000. Today, that figure has been whittled away quite a bit – 140,000 or a reduction of 44.88 percent.

Imagine what it would be like in the current operating environment for railroads to move the same amount of tonnage they did 105 years ago, using 45 percent fewer route-miles of track to do this. Such would present quite a challenge, to say the least. One should take comfort in knowing, however, that, collectively, America’s railroads are on track and doing a first-rate job in getting the goods delivered.

As good or impressive as that may sound, there is the matter of trains on at least some pikes having to contend with congestion. Yes, congestion.

Take the nearly 70-mile-long Tehachapi Pass line of the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) between Bakersfield in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley (north end) and Mojave in the Golden State’s Mojave Desert (south end) as a prime example. Though much of the right-of-way is doubletracked, there remains sections where only one track of line is available for use at any one time.

That condition presents operational challenges for UP in not only getting its trains over the mountain, but also for tenant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) trains which have the right to use the track in question as a means to get across the same pass. Needless to say, congestion on the grade is frequently encountered.

Performance matters

Multitracking – Being that railroad operations is performance-driven generally, the less time it takes for trains to get from origination to destination points, again, generally, the better. This translates to more efficient operations. And, more efficient operations can result from better equipment utilization which can and do lead to fuel or energy savings. Those can contribute to improved bottom lines along with less damage and harm to the operated-through environment – in other words, fewer negative air and/or land and/or water impacts.

In places, therefore, where only single sections of track (singletrack sections, in other words) exist; multitracking can be a viable remedy and offer a way to improve operational efficiency.

Scheduling – In passenger railroad ops, scheduling (meaning trains running on fixed schedules) plays a big part; in freight train ops, on the other hand, not as much. But this is beginning to change.

Being evaluated, meanwhile, is something called Precision Scheduled Railroading or PSR for short. What this entails is operating a railroad by the “scheduled” running of trains. This could be of immense benefit to high-, medium- and even low-priority trains – a way to ensure that such arrive at their destinations at designated times and therefore meeting customers exacting delivery needs. All logistical details would need to be worked out ahead of time. Sometimes required is working in tandem and cooperation with connecting carriers.

Timing – Timing, akin to scheduling, plays a part also. This has to do with where meets of trains occur out on the railroad.

In singletrack territory with strategically located passing sidings, if oppositely-moving trains heading toward each other are able to pass each other by where doubletrack (two tracks) exists, and where neither train is forced to make a stop, this is indeed helpful in the performance sense as well. The trick is to keep the freight rolling. Such techniques enable railroads to offer more competitive service to railroads’ trucking counterparts.

Fleeting – Also referred to as bunching, fleeting involves trains running in the same direction being dispatched from the originating point one after another, in succession, in other words, each keeping a safe distance behind the one ahead to guard against collisions. These trains could be released in order of priority level. Once through and past the so-called bottleneck section, then, conversely, fleeting of trains moving oppositely could take place.

Technology – For a time, BNSF was testing a battery-powered locomotive between Barstow and Stockton in the Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley regions, respectively. Its performance in this service lane was evaluated. Tehachapi Pass was one of the territories this locomotive while on BNSF and UP property regularly visited. It would be interesting to know how well this particular locomotive performed in the mountainous operating environment. The battery locomotive operated in the company of internal-combustion-engine-powered locomotives.

Based on the results of this testing, this could have implications for possible battery-electric locomotion in future operations serving in similar applications.

Performance parameters

It should be noted that it is not uncommon for railroad companies to go to great lengths and expense to maintain physical plants (infrastructure) to very high standards. Railroads can invest vast sums of capital each year in this regard. Tracked, too, for example, is systemwide train speed data. Up to a certain threshold, the higher the average train speed, the better the performance. Needs can be tailored to meet shipping/serving customer demand. But, ultimately, this is about getting the rail-hauled lading from points A to B in the most efficient manner possible. If air quality benefits in the process, all the better!

– Alan Kandel

All material copyright 2021.

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