Shrink the Water Level Route?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, August 13, 2017

CSX has been studying the feasibility of single-tracking its route from Chicago to Selkirk (Albany), N.Y. But is it feasible, people are asking? Wouldn’t the railroad grind to a halt? Some of you have already said as much in comments to an earlier blog.

I decided to find out. A couple of years ago I built a simulation model for CXS between Buffalo and Selkirk using interactive Train Dispatcher 3 software. I’ve just employed this platform to run the trains actually operated over the territory on a recent midweek day. Then I went into the software, removed 100 miles of double track over the 295-mile stretch—and reran those same trains.

Before I describe the results, let’s talk about train counts and track capacity. Union Pacific a dozen years ago concluded that on its Sunset Route between El Paso and Tucson, 45 trains a day was about the max. The Sunset then featured 8,800-foot sidings on about 10-mile spacing. When BNSF Railway saw the train count on its Northern Transcon rise from the high 30s a day to the 40s, it began double tracking across the state of Montana. Santa Fe Railway was able to push 50 trains a day across its single track through New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle in the 1990s, but remember Santa Fe had seven-mile spacing and two- and three-mile sidings, and some of those sidings had crossovers midway through.

CSX currently operates 38 regularly scheduled trains a day between Buffalo and Syracuse (DeWitt Yard), and 40 between Syracuse and Selkirk/Albany. Of these, eight are Amtrak trains, six handle automobiles, 10 are manifest freights and 14 to 16 are intermodal trains. Plus there are locals, unit ethanol trains, maintenance of way trains, industrial jobs around the big cities and occasional extras.

Given the complexity of operations across Upstate New York—intermodal hotshots overtaking manifest and auto trains and Amtrak schedules overtaking everything—I didn’t try to redesign the network into a conventional single-track road. Instead, I took out pieces of double track between some existing control points until I had eliminated 100 track miles that can be redeployed to lengthen sidings on the Chicago-Waycross, Ga., artery. I left double track on the approaches to Selkirk and Buffalo and through both Syracuse and Rochester. I also left in place the West Shore bypass line around Rochester.

On the day in question, CSX operated 46 through trains, including 38 freights and 8 passenger runs. These included three ethanol trains, three MOW runs and two extras. In addition, 10 locals and 10 industrial jobs competed for track time. (Above is the railroad as it looked at 5:21 p.m. that day, a relatively tranquil time. Buffalo is at the upper left and West Albany and Selkirk at the lower right. Rochester is on the second level of the track layout and Syracuse terminal on the fourth.)

Surprisingly, the original railroad with its double track intact is almost as hard to dispatch as the one minus those 100 miles of second main. Because of frequent overtakes, you cannot just fleet trains. Instead, you are constantly getting slower trains out of the way of faster trains running up behind them.

The price of removing those 100 miles is a 28 percent increase in delays, caused either by waiting at red signals or being unable to make track speed. That extra lost time adds up to 23 hours. Because I tried to observe train priories—Amtrak, intermodal, auto, manifest, local, industrial, in that order—those trains at the low end suffered most, and the Amtrak and intermodal trains least.

I concluded that losing those 100 miles of double track wouldn’t cripple CSX across New York. All things considered, 23 hours of added delay may be a price worth paying.

Wait, you say! Won’t this stunt future traffic growth? Yes indeed, but who says there’s going to be an increase in traffic? CSX has slowly been going out of business all during the 21st Century, its manifest business down 20 percent since 2000, its coal franchise a shadow of its former self and its intermodal growth at least temporarily halted. Former management under Michael Ward may have talked the growth talk, but didn’t walk it. I have no reason to think Ward’s successor, Hunter Harrison, will act differently.

It’s another story, by the way, between Chicago and Cleveland. CSX has been shooting between 50 and 60 trains a day across this corridor, according to documents I’ve reviewed. Removing even one-third of the second main track, as in my Buffalo-Selkirk simulation, would be courting disaster.

Latest word is that the single-tracking idea has been put on hold. Maybe that’s just as well.—Fred W. Frailey

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