The monster that ate Southern California

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 15, 2010

Union Pacific just thought it was testing acceleration, braking, drawbar stress, radio continuity, and all of that when it dispatched that 3½-mile-long intermodal train from Dallas a week ago, en route to Long Beach, Calif. Good guess, guys, but no! What it was really testing, it turns out, was public opinion, and the results are in: People don’t like long trains, or at least think they don’t. What people really don’t like is change.
At 18,061 feet, it was almost the longest U.S. train ever run (that record is held by Norfolk & Western’s 21,425-foot, 1967-era coal train). And let’s get this straight: UP was not testing a new operating plan. It has no intention, yet, of running trains this long anywhere on its system.
But as I wrote in the January issue of TRAINS (“Those Big Mama Freights Aren’t Going to Waddle Away,” page 12), the trend is toward longer and longer trains, as well it should be. The reason is not to save crew starts; crews are cheap. It’s to create more capacity, for that day when American business is humming again and the railroad network refills. Now is the time to understand all you can about the physics of really long (12,000-foot-plus) trains. I commend Union Pacific for its experiment.
I’m sure the people at headquarters in Omaha wish they’d stopped IDILB-08 and its 618 double-stack containers in Yuma, Ariz., and broken it into three or four pieces for the last lap into Long Beach. For after the train got to Southern California, all hell broke loose.
Oh this! Oh that! Oh my heavens! Girdles quivered. Frowns deepened. There was much rending of garments. Said a member of Congress representing California’s San Gabriel Valley: “I will be asking a lot more questions.” A spokesman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, says the Associated Press, “accused Union Pacific of attempting to run three trains with one crew.” California’s Public Utility Commission “rushed” (I am quoting the Los Angeles Times) a team to Imperial County to monitor the train because, in the words of the man heading rail safety, the commission was “quite concerned.” I am told that the phone in UP’s Washington, D.C., office rang like mad. Want to bet whether legislation will be introduced in Congress to limit the length of freight trains? That same spokesman for the BLET said: “There’s too much going on to be constantly monitoring and thinking about.”
If I sound as if I’m making fun of these people, it’s because I am. Not one person quoted or even mentioned in a lengthy Los Angeles Times article on Wednesday had even laid eyes on this train, much less been inconvenienced by it. Yet it was being portrayed as some kind of Trojan horse being wheeled into LA County by the stupid railroad. And the whining came, by and large, from people who had no idea what they were talking about. I am still waiting for someone to come forward and say he or she was inconvenienced in the least by the passage of IDILB.
I’ve seen three separate video runbys by this train. In two of them, IDILB-08 took roughly four and a half minutes to pass before the cameras. The third runby was in the West Colton terminal at a more restricted speed, as the rules dictate. The passage of an 18,000-foot-long train delays motorists no more than the passage of three 6,000-foot trains. To put it another way, if every fourth train were 18,000 feet long and the other three 6,000 feet, and you passed over the tracks once an hour, 24 hours a day, well, you’d be damned tired, is what you’d be. But seriously, the delays in minutes waiting for the tracks to clear would be exactly the same between those three shorter trains on one hand and the one longer train on the other. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
But tell that to the people in California. They just don’t get it. Plus, they don’t like change.
In case you missed it, enjoy these great photos by
Bob Hanggie, taken January 10 at the top of Beaumont Hill in California. Or dig these videos: <>
--Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy