Freight Trains Picking Up Speed as Winter Approaches


29 Dec 2014
                                                                                                                                                                                      Union Pacific Railroad
Photo Courtesy Union Pacific via Wikimedia Commons
Does it seem as if freight trains are moving faster along railroad crossings in recent weeks? That’s because they are.
According to Railroad Performance Measures – a website where intermodal carriers voluntarily submit weekly reports on the average velocity of their freight trains and other data — several of North America’s biggest railroads posted sharp increases in train speeds earlier this month.
For the Union Pacific and BNSF, the speeds were among the highest they have been all year.
For the ending December 5, Union Pacific intermodal trains — which travel mostly along rail lines in the West and Northern US — moved at an average speed of 32.2 miles per hour, which was 2.3 miles per hour higher than the previous week. Trains from the Dallas-based BNSF averaged 33.9 miles per hour, up 2.5 miles per hour from the week before.
East Coast Is Slower
Trains operating along the East Coast tend to go slower due to more congestion and because they move through more densely populated areas. CSX’s intermodal freight trains averaged only 28.7 miles per hour, but that was still 1.7 miles per hour higher than the week before. It also was the railroad’s fastest reported speed all year.
Another East Coast line, Norfolk Southern, averaged speeds of 27.7 miles per hour, which were its highest since May, according to the report.
Lower ‘Terminal Dwell’
While train speeds were up, terminal dwell — or the average period of time freight remained idle in train yards — was decreasing.
For example, for the week ending December 12, the average terminal dwell for CN intermodal trains at the massive train yard in Markham, Illinois, was only 14.2 hours, down from 16.3 hours the previous week and 20.4 hours the week before. But it was the same average terminal dwell at that yard for the third quarter of 2013, according to the report.
Other railroads also reported lower terminal dwell in many of their yards.
Not ‘Apples to Apples’ Comparison
The report offers a snapshot of what’s happening on a weekly basis among the biggest North American intermodal carriers, but it shouldn’t be used to compare how one railroad is performing versus another because each railroad is unique. Differences include terrain, physical routes and network design, traffic mix and volume, the extent of passenger operations, and operational practices.
External factors — such as weather and port operations — also can affect freight line velocities and terminal dwell statistics.
Still, the overall average increase in freight train velocity may be a good thing for intermodal carriers because it means they are delivering their freight to where it needs to go more quickly and efficiently.
Blame it on the Weather?
Part of the increase in average speeds may have to do with this month’s relatively mild weather conditions. Last year’s December saw unseasonably cold temperatures and a series of heavy, crippling snowfalls across many Northern US states and Canadian provinces.
This year, more than 2,400 record high temperature records were broken in the first half of December in the US as a spell of unusually balmy weather overtook a large portion of the country. The second half of the month is expected to return to typical mid-December temperatures, according to The Weather Channel.
Less Post-Thanksgiving Congestion
Another cause for the average speed increase may have to do with railroads purging congestion from their networks during the traditionally slow  Thanksgiving holiday period, clearing lines so that freight trains could move faster in December, according to Larry Gross, from the intermodal consultants group FTR Associates.
“It’s like someone pulled a stopper out of a drain and all the water ran out,” Gross said.