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small unit trains

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small unit trains
Posted by TH&B on Saturday, June 10, 2006 9:50 AM
So if unit trains are more efficient then loose carload shipments, why not run short unit trains? Would not a 10 car unit train from point a to b and back be efficient?
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Posted by zardoz on Saturday, June 10, 2006 10:08 AM
Two reasons: crew wages and locomotive efficiency.

Now if you talk about a 50-car train with only one crew member, then maybe.
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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Saturday, June 10, 2006 10:19 AM
Ten cars is small enough to be handled as a block on a larger train. Something that small is not a major improvement over single-car shipments. 50 cars, as suggested above, even with a 2-man crew, seems to be about the minimum for a unit train.
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Posted by greyhounds on Saturday, June 10, 2006 10:24 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by 440cuin

So if unit trains are more efficient then loose carload shipments, why not run short unit trains? Would not a 10 car unit train from point a to b and back be efficient?


Basically, unit trains save money by improving equipment utilization. They also don't need space in yards, switch engine time, etc. But they also add costs when they require extra road crews, cause MofW forces to shut down and let them pass, take up dispatcher resources, etc.

Their economics are a trade off between the costing elements. I've got an AAR study on short haul intermodal that uses:

1) Train Mile costs - $3.53/mile
(dispatching, interferance with MofW and other trains,etc)
2) Crew Costs - $8.30/mile

That's $11.83/mile for those two elements alone. For a 10 car train that would be $1.18/car mile. On a 50 car train, it would only be $0.24/car mile.

A 10 car unit train can make econonomic sense, but it would have to produce enough in savings in some areas to offset its added costs in other areas. A 10 car unit train operated with a one person crew from an ethanol plant on a light density branch would have almost no "train mile" cost and reduced crew costs.

Will it happen? It depends on the union negotiations. If the crew costs stays up the loads will probably move in regular locals.
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Posted by MP173 on Saturday, June 10, 2006 12:15 PM
I have brought this up before,. NS currently runs unit "bottle trains" of molten steel from Northwest Indiana to South Chicago. So, it can be done.

ed
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Posted by gabe on Saturday, June 10, 2006 12:19 PM
Wow, every now and then I really learn something on this forum (not that I know that much to start with). Really excellent analysis by greyhounds.

I was kind of thinking along the lines of MP173.

If NS can run 8 car mixed train and make money on its busy Decatur IL to St. Louis Missouri line, why can't a 10 car unit train make money?

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Saturday, June 10, 2006 12:30 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by MP173

I have brought this up before,. NS currently runs unit "bottle trains" of molten steel from Northwest Indiana to South Chicago. So, it can be done.

ed

The "bottle train", which was originally an Interlake Steel intraplant operation between its blast furnace and its finishing mill, is only slightly less specialized than the movement of a loaded Schnabel car. The shipper supplies everything but the motive power and crew, the cars are very heavy and are probably covered in the Special Instructions, and the haul is within the terminal area boundaries. I would also assume that ISG or Mittal pays a premium rate for this service. It may be a unit train operation of sorts, but it is too specific to a given area to be held up as an example for elsewhere.
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Posted by Anonymous on Saturday, June 10, 2006 1:09 PM
Actually, the small unit train concept is one that has great profit potential for the railroads, yet has hardly been exploited due to hard wired misconceptions regarding the "efficiencies = profits" mindset. The small unit train concept is a perfect fit for short haul markets.

Assuming Ken is probably correct in his assessment, the per car cost for a 10 car unit train is about $1.18/car mile, which is a much higher cost than the longer trains. However, since the shorthaul market is one which the railroads have all but ceded to truckers, it is the truck cost structure that dominates rates in such corridors. Trucks probably can't handle a cost per mile lower than $1.50, and are probably more in the $2.00 - $2.50 range. On a ton mile basis, the 10 car short haul rail shuttle cost comes out to about $0.01/ton mile, while the trucker's ton mile cost is about $0.04/ton mile. Thus, there is a pricing opportunities for railroads in which the railroad can charge a higher rate than the usual long haul rates, yet still get the business because the higher rail rate still beats the trucker's break even rates.

The key of course is to haul a commodity that allows the train consist to remain intact, and to provide the service at a consistent availability interval so that timing constraints of the shipper don't force the traffic onto trucks as a last resort.

As for long haul, railroads do occasionally add 10 or so car sets to regular manifests and drags if the space is available.
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Posted by rrandb on Saturday, June 10, 2006 2:51 PM
Actually they come by my house but in the form of 100 car manifest with blocks of 10 cars or more included. When they get to where they are going they become blocks or singles for locals.
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Posted by rvos1979 on Saturday, June 10, 2006 3:03 PM
Wisconsin Central (and now CN) have been doing this for at least eight years, running 25 car unit trains of sand and gravel from quarries in Sussex and near Slinger, Wisconsin to dealers in Illinois, and they seem to be making money off of it.

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Posted by Anonymous on Sunday, June 11, 2006 7:25 PM
In the early 1970s , RDG ran some short distance unit trains with reduced crew size, etc. They called it the BEE Line. Some of their freight units had the Bee Line logo on them. That all stopped before Conrail.
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Posted by edblysard on Sunday, June 11, 2006 8:57 PM
Randy,
Do the cars belong toCN, or is it a leased package.
Georgetown railroad down here leases the entire train, sans crew and power, to UP.
Lets them run pretty much whatever size train the aggerate buyer wants.
QUOTE: Originally posted by rvos1979

Wisconsin Central (and now CN) have been doing this for at least eight years, running 25 car unit trains of sand and gravel from quarries in Sussex and near Slinger, Wisconsin to dealers in Illinois, and they seem to be making money off of it.

23 17 46 11

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Posted by solzrules on Sunday, June 11, 2006 9:41 PM
This may or may not apply, but the Wisconsin Central kind of used that philosophy when they started in the 80's. Short, fast trains. It worked very well for them. I don't know that they were unit trains, however.
You think this is bad? Just wait until inflation kicks in.....
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Posted by ericsp on Sunday, June 11, 2006 10:06 PM
I remember reading in Pacific Rail News in the early 1990s about SP experimenting with a sprint train (I think defined as about 12 cars) to run perishables back east. I have never heard anything about it again. (Sarcasm alert) I wonder why.

When the Coast Line was closed due to slides in early 2005 the Oil Cans detoured through the valley. Initially they had all 78 or 91 cars. However, after the first few times they cut it down to 26 cars. I have never been able to figure that out.

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Posted by rrandb on Sunday, June 11, 2006 11:17 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by 440cuin

So if unit trains are more efficient then loose carload shipments, why not run short unit trains? Would not a 10 car unit train from point a to b and back be efficient?
I think your off the mark on the 10 cars but the FEC was running 3 trains a day north and south. "We switched to eight trains a day (N&S) or more and were able to double our revenue ton-miles." quoted from W. L. Thornton FEC Chairman.
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Posted by greyhounds on Sunday, June 11, 2006 11:25 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by futuremodal

Actually, the small unit train concept is one that has great profit potential for the railroads, yet has hardly been exploited due to hard wired misconceptions regarding the "efficiencies = profits" mindset. The small unit train concept is a perfect fit for short haul markets.

Assuming Ken is probably correct in his assessment, the per car cost for a 10 car unit train is about $1.18/car mile, which is a much higher cost than the longer trains. However, since the shorthaul market is one which the railroads have all but ceded to truckers, it is the truck cost structure that dominates rates in such corridors. Trucks probably can't handle a cost per mile lower than $1.50, and are probably more in the $2.00 - $2.50 range. On a ton mile basis, the 10 car short haul rail shuttle cost comes out to about $0.01/ton mile, while the trucker's ton mile cost is about $0.04/ton mile. Thus, there is a pricing opportunities for railroads in which the railroad can charge a higher rate than the usual long haul rates, yet still get the business because the higher rail rate still beats the trucker's break even rates.

The key of course is to haul a commodity that allows the train consist to remain intact, and to provide the service at a consistent availability interval so that timing constraints of the shipper don't force the traffic onto trucks as a last resort.

As for long haul, railroads do occasionally add 10 or so car sets to regular manifests and drags if the space is available.


Actually, I think Dave is misinterpreting the numbers I provided. I gave only two cost elements, "train mile" and "crew". These were examples of "added" costs incured by the operation of an extra unit train as opposed to adding the business to existing freight trains. My point was that these added costs have to be offset by the efficiencies of unit train operation. (ie. improved equipment utilization, no switching, no use of yard capacity, etc.)

Here are all the cost elements from the AAR study. They're from the early 2000's and are a little out of date, i.e. fuel at $0.87/gal is a distant memory.

Line Haul

Train Mile $3.53 Per mile
Crew $8.30 Per mile
MofW $0.88 Per 1,000 gtm
Switching $4.35 Per minute
Loco Maint. $1.17 Per unit mile
Fuel $0.87*units*miles*3 gal/mile
Loco Capital $35.00 Unit hour
Car lease $45.36 Per car day (5 wells)
Car Mileage $0.07 Per car mile

Got to cover 'em all Dave, got to cover 'em all.
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Posted by PNWRMNM on Monday, June 12, 2006 2:20 AM
Another aspect of this is congestion. In general the short train takes as much track occupancy time and dispatcher effort as a long one. If the route is congested adding a train will impose delay costs on that train and probably every other train it encounters. In practice this means that short unit trains will usually be associated with low density lines where congestion costs are nil.

The steel bottle moves are doubtless made at high enough rates to cover all costs of the move. On a per car basis the rate is probably outrageous.

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Monday, June 12, 2006 8:03 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by dave e

In the early 1970s , RDG ran some short distance unit trains with reduced crew size, etc. They called it the BEE Line. Some of their freight units had the Bee Line logo on them. That all stopped before Conrail.

Way back in the late 1960's, TRAINS had a lead-off article in "News & Editorial Comment" about Reading's Bee Line Service. It was not unit trains but a short to very short haul truck-competitive service with negotiated variations in existing labor agreements regarding crew sizes, operating boundaries, etc. RDG determined that they could make money on this arrangement on hauls as short as 2 miles.
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Posted by MP173 on Monday, June 12, 2006 9:02 AM
I just remembered that ADM is running a service at Decatur in conjunction with NS and perhaps CN of short haul grain trains from the fertile fields of Central Illinois to the "Supermarket of the World"

So, it can be done. I would think the key here is ownership of the cars. The asset costs per day would really chew up the railroads, if they were not careful.

ed
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Posted by rvos1979 on Monday, June 12, 2006 10:39 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by edblysard

Randy,
Do the cars belong toCN, or is it a leased package.
Georgetown railroad down here leases the entire train, sans crew and power, to UP.
Lets them run pretty much whatever size train the aggerate buyer wants.


Yes, CN does own the cars, they are taconite cars released from ore service in Canada. Vulcan Material likes them for their fast dumping ability in freezing weather. (They have been known to run trains all through our Wisconsin winters.)

Randy Vos

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Posted by Anonymous on Monday, June 12, 2006 6:37 PM
Why would a small unit train result in MoW costs different than that of a conventional small train? Is it a question of scheduled vs. nonscheduled service?

Also, IIRC, the Rock Island wanted to try 10 or 12 car grain trains with two man crews in Iowa on the branchlines, but the union wouldn't go for it.
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Posted by Paul Milenkovic on Monday, June 12, 2006 10:33 PM
There was another thread talking about efforts to increase truck lengths and number of trailers to turn them into "trains." My question is why trucks wanted to be trains when trains didn't want to become trucks --- operate in short blocks.

When trains become "trucks" they incur added costs mentioned above. When trucks become "trains" they take on problems of trains -- braking, power to climb grades, the service issues of blocking shipments to train lengths.

It seems there is a big gap between what trucks are allowed to operate and the minimum size that railroads seek to operate trains. I guess the reason for that gap is that trucks can operate at 2-second headways (try doing that with a train) while operating trains at much less than hourly intervals takes considerable investment in sidings, signals, double track. Operating short trains gets into track capacity pretty quickly, and that may be part of the passenger train dillema -- one of operating frequent short trains for service reasons and the high cost of doing that.

As to the other end, making trucks into trains, if you make the trucks too long, their roadability and braking must suffer and you go back to the train problem of requiring longer headway.

Back to the issue of costs -- is there a way to get ahold of that AAR study, by Internet or by library? Those cost numbers are really interesting, and I would like to see similar cost numbers for passenger train operations. Are similar numbers available for truck and bus operations?

If GM "killed the electric car", what am I doing standing next to an EV-1, a half a block from the WSOR tracks?

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Posted by beaulieu on Monday, June 12, 2006 10:39 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by tomtrain

Why would a small unit train result in MoW costs different than that of a conventional small train? Is it a question of scheduled vs. nonscheduled service?


No difference between small unit train and small conventional train.

QUOTE:
Also, IIRC, the Rock Island wanted to try 10 or 12 car grain trains with two man crews in Iowa on the branchlines, but the union wouldn't go for it.


At the time their other trains used more two man crews. This would have reduced the three man local crews to two man.
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Posted by greyhounds on Monday, June 12, 2006 10:41 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by tomtrain

Why would a small unit train result in MoW costs different than that of a conventional small train? Is it a question of scheduled vs. nonscheduled service?



It doesn't. The MofW figures are per 1,000 gross ton miles and it doesn't matter how those gross tons move their miles.

That's why I left it out originally. Dave seemed to mistakenly take crew and train mile costs as "everything" and I attempted to correct the misconception.
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Posted by Anonymous on Monday, June 12, 2006 10:47 PM
QUOTE: Originally posted by zardoz

Two reasons: crew wages and locomotive efficiency.


Now this is a good starting point to exemplify the overlooked possibilities. Short haul unit train operations will work fine if:
1. The haul in question is at least one nominal crew district, or is an out and back full work day for the road crew.
2. Locomotive efficiency is a function of the hp to ton ratios. If you can get a hp/t ratio similar to that of the longer consists, your locomotive efficiency is the same.

QUOTE:
Now if you talk about a 50-car train with only one crew member, then maybe.


Another possibility for railroads to get more traffic (and the union to get more members) - If you can get the union to agree on a one man crew for a guaranteed scheduled haul in a normal work day with normal human off time(e.g. no on-call hassles, no back to work in 8 hours stuff), then you have increased the labor efficiency over that of regular two man crews who must put up with being on the call board for unscheduled departures.
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Posted by greyhounds on Tuesday, June 13, 2006 12:39 AM
Until the brewery crashed and burned financially (An Australian investor paid too much for it and the debt service killed the company.), the number one beer brand in Chicago was "Old Style" brewed in La Crosse, WI.

It might have worked, a small beer train out of La Crosse to Chicago shooting across Wisconsin to the millions of thirsty folks living in the Chicago area.

Alas, the "Old Style" brand was bought by Miller and is now brewed in Milwaukee. The La Crosse facility operates as a much smaller brewery. And beer from La Crosse no longer dominates the Chicago market.
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Posted by jeaton on Tuesday, June 13, 2006 1:26 AM
QUOTE: Originally posted by futuremodal

QUOTE: Originally posted by zardoz

Two reasons: crew wages and locomotive efficiency.


Now this is a good starting point to exemplify the overlooked possibilities. Short haul unit train operations will work fine if:
1. The haul in question is at least one nominal crew district, or is an out and back full work day for the road crew.
2. Locomotive efficiency is a function of the hp to ton ratios. If you can get a hp/t ratio similar to that of the longer consists, your locomotive efficiency is the same.

QUOTE:
Now if you talk about a 50-car train with only one crew member, then maybe.


Another possibility for railroads to get more traffic (and the union to get more members) - If you can get the union to agree on a one man crew for a guaranteed scheduled haul in a normal work day with normal human off time(e.g. no on-call hassles, no back to work in 8 hours stuff), then you have increased the labor efficiency over that of regular two man crews who must put up with being on the call board for unscheduled departures.


You have just about the correct parameters for the short unit train. We did a few on the IC, as "experiments" to get the unions to go for it as a test. It worked for some grain hauls from country elevators to the big grain storage and unit train shipping facilities. We also had a set up hauling short trains of aggregate to temporary pits built near the route of I-55. We had to stay within one crew district, because a crew change made even the two man crew cost too high. Operate on a tight schedule, unload the train on arrival and put the crew home at the end of the shift.

These days, short lines tend to be able to get more flexibility in the use of the crews and with lower levels of other traffic can pull off profitable short unit train operations. With higher traffic levels and train frequency, the cost tradoffs say put the ten car block in one of the long haul trains.

For something of your interest, if the railroads had had the Staggers act and the two man train crews in the 1960's, some portion of the country elevator/grain branch system may have survived. Sorry, but today you work with the railroad you have, not the one you wish you had.

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Posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, June 13, 2006 10:37 AM
greyhounds,
I remember the constant parade of Old Style trucks on I-90 between La Crosse and Chicago. Always wished the Milwaukee or Burlington or even the Northwestern could've attracted that business. I worked for a distributor in Wisconsin around that time, and the distributors arranged the transportation.

On a recent trip to St. Louis, I saw many Budweiser trucks on I-55 between Chicago and St. Louis. JB Hunt must have the hauling contract, as many of the semi's had their cabs. Too bad UP couldn't gain that traffic, and use the Alton line.

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