Sunday, September 11, 2011

Train Length: How Long Can They Go?

This CPR train is over 4 kilometres long.

Anyone who has gone railfanning lately—or been stopped at a railway crossing—knows that trains are getting longer. But how much longer?

Up here in Canada, intermodal trains on the CPR have grown from 63 cars in 2008 to 90 cars in 2010. The railway hopes to reach a goal of 105 cars per train.

Meanwhile, CPR coal trains have grown from 124 cars in 2008 to 129 cars in 2010; the target is 152. Potash trains have grown from 124 cars to 142 cars; the target is 170 cars.

Mixed freight trains have also grown, from 86 cars to 105 cars; the target is 115 cars. Grain train length has remained steady at 114 cars; the railway is aiming for 168 cars.

To help it determine maximum train lengths, the CPR uses software called Train Area Marshaling that allows it to model its trains before they are even built.

The software helps it simulate the sort of in-train forces trains would experience across its entire network, taking into consideration things like the actual curves and gradation the trains will encounter.

The software then determines the ideal weight distribution by recommending strategic placement of loaded and empty cars, and the best locations for remote locomotive sets (distributed power).

The software is so good the CPR thinks it will be able to increase the length of its coal trains to 250 cars.

Over at CN, that railway has been testing 200-car trains in the Maritimes. In northern Ontario, on its trans-continental mainline, it plans to lengthen sidings from 6,000-7,000 feet to 12,000 to 14,000 feet to accommodate the longer trains.

Up until the 1990s, the average freight train in Canada was about 5,000 feet (1.54 kilometres) long and weighed 7,000 tons. But it is now not uncommon for trains to be 12,000 feet long, and sometimes as much as 14,000 feet (more than four kilometres).

The railways love the longer trains, of course—they reduce the number of trains they need to run, the number of people they need to employ, the wear-and-tear on track and the amount of fuel they use.

The longer trains have caught the eye of Transport Canada, which has launched a six-part study with an eye on developing policies for how these longer, heavier trains are assembled and run.

With information from the Feb. 26, 2011 Financial Post. Photo credit: CPR.


  1. I remember seeing the first 'much longer' CN freight pulling into Belleville yard, and a crewman on the scanner asking "Is this someone's idea of a joke??".


    1. I love super much longer freight and coal trains!

  2. Great article. I just joined your blog and love all your railroad news and model railroad expertise.

  3. train length has got to be limited. As I write this a freight train is parked across my access to my farm and home. It does this several times a day, 6 and ten news will show what happens when emergency vehicles were blocked

  4. BNSF blocks crossings in Moorhead Minnesota almost daily (completely stopped) Other "super long" trains move as speeds a pedestrian can out walk. Multiple crossings blocked by passing train only to find next block has a new train passing and you wait again. People race into Fargo to find an underpass and then drive back to Moorhead. BNSF doesn't care one bit!!