Locomotives Wear Big Sweaters: 10 Frigid Freight Rail Facts

Wind lashes through gusts of snowflakes. Dense, white powder piles up around cars, houses and anything else in Mother Nature’s way. It’s freezing.

So how do trains stay warm as the weather turns frigid? They wear big, custom-made sweaters.

No, we’re just joking!

Keeping America’s 140,000-mile private rail network moving during a #coldsnap has nothing to do with crochet needles and yarn and everything to do with investments, technology and engineering.

Here are ten examples of how freight rail maintains a safe and efficient network during a deep freeze:

  1. Air Driers, Not Just for Hair: Moisture in the brake system of mainline trains can freeze. That’s why locomotives contain air driers that remove moisture and keep operations safely moving.
  2. Roasty, Toasty Headlights: Locomotives often use LED headlights because they are energy efficient. Since LEDs don’t get very hot, the headlights are equipped with heaters to melt snow and ice.
  3. Bundled Up: It may be freezing, but railroad employees are bundled up and warm. Providing cold weather gear, training and transportation are just a few things railroads do to keep employees safe and comfortable in cold weather.
  4. Hot Technology (Literally): Railroads use a variety of technologies including computer-controlled start-stop systems, low idle settings and auxiliary power units to keep locomotive engines safely working in cold weather. Again, the sweaters were a joke!
  5. Plowing Through Snow: Mainline locomotives are equipped with snow plows that remain in place year round. When there is too much snow for the locomotive to handle, railroads use specialized on-track machinery to clear the tracks.
  6. Like Building a Snow Fort: Winter weather can make it hard to move freight cars in railroad terminals. By building additional tracks within rail yards, railroads can store more trains and relieve terminal congestion.
  7. Santa Has a Command Center, So Do We: At centralized command centers, key personnel monitor the rail network and weather forecasts in real-time to coordinate efforts such as crew deployment, maintenance and contractor management.
  8. Blizzard Buses: Each year, railroads invest millions to upgrade existing and purchase new winter equipment such as industrial-sized snow blowers and “blizzard buses” for crew transportation.
  9. Sounding the Alarm: With more than 25% of U.S. freight rail traffic moving through Chicago, railroads implemented an early warning system to assess real-time data and trigger operational contingency plans such as rerouting traffic. Before winter weather even hits, railroad logistics managers plan alternate routes to keep traffic moving.
  10. Quick as the Wind: During severe winter weather, railroads safely deploy rapid response teams to immediately remove snow and resolve mechanical and service interruptions.

Railroads & the U.S. Military: Stronger Together

Railroads have been a vital partner in U.S. military operations for more than 200 years, from transporting troops and supplies to hauling the raw materials needed for weapons and planes, to hiring thousands of veterans each year.

Moving Military Operations Forward

During the Civil War (1861-1865)—often called the ‘first railroad war’—railroads became the vital new technology for both Union and Confederate forces. They moved unprecedented numbers of troops and supplies while introducing ironclad railcars—capable of carrying big guns and artillery—that later evolved into modern armored combat vehicles.

See 10 Ways Freight Railroads Provided Support During Wartime

As World War II unfolded, railroads moved approximately two million troops a month for deployment following the attack on Pearl Harbor and were instrumental in hauling the coal, iron ore and steel needed to produce military supplies, as well as the finished products themselves.

Today, railroads continue to support U.S. combat efforts with innovative technologies that strengthen military operations and help America’s brave achieve victory.

Transforming Veterans to Railroaders

From early West Point grads that helped lead the U.S. rail industry’s formation, to civil war veterans that worked on the nation’s transcontinental railroad, the success of America’s freight railroads is deeply rooted in a tradition of hiring veterans.

The skills developed and valued in the military—a sense of dedication, discipline, teamwork and adherence to safety—are the same skills that keep the backbone of the nation’s economy running efficiently. Veterans are particularly well-suited for railroad careers because of their experience working with machinery,  focus on operational safety, adaptability to changing conditions and their other abundant, diverse skills.

Railroads, unlike many other private industries, understand the technical aspects and demands of an armed forces job. That is why they work directly with the military to help talented service men and women transition from military service to private sector railroad employment. Today, approximately 20-25% of rail employees have a military background. In fact:

  • Railroads focus heavily on on-the-job training and do not require a college degree for a lifelong, skilled career.
  • The average U.S. rail employee earns 60% more than the average U.S. employee, with compensation (including benefits) averaging nearly $121,000 a year.
  • Rail jobs range from engineering and dispatching to law enforcement, information technology, industrial development and more.

The freight rail industry is honored to support the dedicated men and women that have served our country and look forward to the years of partnership to come.

Learn More About Railroads’ Commitment to Hiring Veterans

5 Innovations that Have Strengthened Railroads’ Muscle

Thirty-five years ago, the average freight train could safely haul 2,200 tons at once. That was a lot of cargo!  Yet even though the basic structure of a train has remained the same, today a single freight train can carry even more — a whopping 3,600 tons, on average.

Putting good old American ingenuity to work, railroads deliver more cargo than ever before at rates that are among the lowest in the industrialized world. As a result, America’s railroads truly pull their own weight in America’s integrated transportation network of trains, trucks and barges which delivers 54 tons of goods and commodities for every American in a single year.

How did freight railroads get so strong?

1. Distributed Power

A locomotive provides the power to move a train forward. So adding multiple locomotives throughout a train means even more power, right? Yes, and more power means trains can carry dramatically heavier tonnages, increasing the efficiency of a single train — a win for rail customers as well as consumers. That is the theory behind distributed power, or the distribution of multiple locomotives throughout a train. Today, special technology allows these locomotives to coordinate braking and traction power, decreasing stopping distance and enhancing overall safety. In addition to greater power and safety, the technology also reduces equipment damage that can happen when trains are going up steep inclines.  Plus it reduces fuel consumption and rail wear.

2. Lighter Freight Cars

Today, the average coal car can carry approximately 20 percent more coal than in 1990. That’s because freight railroads have developed and deployed newer, lighter freight cars. Specifically, freight railroads have replaced many aging steel rail cars with lightweight aluminum cars designed specifically to carry coal. These aluminum cars are about 1/3 lighter than their steel equivalents. Together with the increased use of lighter weight castings for rail components, railroads have been able to reduce the weight of a train without sacrificing its safety or strength. Equally important, the reduction in the weight of rail cars has meant that more cargo can be carried at once. Since most coal trains are 100 cars or more, even a slight reduction in weight for each car can mean significantly larger shipments and greater value for rail customers.

3. Alternating Current Traction Motors

Like a car tire spinning on a patch of ice, steel train wheels can end up spinning in place if a load is too heavy. This spinning can damage the wheels and the rail, often resulting in additional maintenance. The advent of alternating current traction motors provides greater adhesion between a train’s steel wheel and the steel rail, even when carrying large (and heavy) quantities of raw materials like coal and ore. Greater adhesion means more pulling power — allowing railroads to carry heavier loads with fewer locomotives attached to a single train.

4. Double Stacking

In 1977, transport entrepreneur Malcom McLean wanted to find a more efficient way to carry shipping containers by train. So he partnered with Southern Pacific Railroad to create and test the first double-stacked intermodal rail car. Today, a single train carries as much freight as hundreds of trucks — a feat made possible, in part, by McLean and Southern Pacific’s innovation. And double stacking has double the benefits: first, to the industry and consumers by increasing intermodal efficiency, and second, to the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Over the years, freight railroads have raised clearances, upgraded tunnels and strengthened rail lines throughout most of America’s 140,000-mile freight rail network to accommodate double-stacked intermodal trains.

5. ‘Heavy Axle Load’ Program

The Transportation Technology Center’s Heavy Axle Load Research Program studies ways to safely increase the maximum weight a train can carry. By examining the effects of heavier loads on track and equipment, railroads can improve the design of equipment components and track structure and procedures for inspection and maintenance. The program’s research allowed railroads to implement 36-ton axle loads — an increase of 9 percent — safely.

More than ever before, freight rail is carrying the weight of the American economy. And through innovations like these, the industry is preparing to carry even more in the years to come.

Green Technologies Get Goods Moving

Did you know that freight trains are four times more fuel-efficient than trucks? Freight trains can move one ton of freight more than 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Bet you didn’t think something so powerful could be so environmentally friendly! In fact, since 1980, new “green” rail technologies and environmentally friendly operating practices have improved our fuel efficiency by more than 100 percent. These innovations are just another way that we’re designed to move a nation – now and for future generations.


Freight Rail and the Greening of America

How do we protect our environment for future generations?

For freight railroads, the answer is by innovating new technologies, investing in new equipment and pioneering new ways of efficiently running our operations. With a private freight rail network that stretches 140,000 miles coast to coast, every improvement along the way can mean a big difference for America’s carbon footprint.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act into law, partially deregulating the railroads. Since then, freight railroads have been able to earn enough revenue to invest in equipment and state-of-the-art technology that helps move goods efficiently and benefits the environment. Innovations like Genset locomotives, which rely upon a series of small engines that can be turned on and off when needed, have made freight trains both more powerful and more fuel-efficient. In 1980, a freight train could haul 2,200 tons in a single journey. Today that number is almost 3,500 tons, a difference that translates into hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel saved.

Railroads have also invested in anti-idling technology and software that can calculate the most fuel-efficient speed for a train. By employing these innovations, a freight train can move one ton of goods more than 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel – making trains four times more fuel efficient than trucks. In fact, moving just 5 percent of freight from truck to rail would result in 9 million fewer tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Freight rail’s commitment to a more sustainable future takes on added importance when one looks at the future demands that will be placed on the nation’s transportation network. The Department of Transportation estimates a 45 percent increase in the volume of U.S. freight shipped between 2010 and 2045. And according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard by Texas A&M Transportation Institute, road congestion is only going to get worse. Americans already lose 6.9 billion hours and 3.1 billion gallons of fuel to congestion each year. What’s a great congestion buster? Freight rail. A single freight train can take several hundred trucks off the nation’s highways – helping commuters and communities breathe easier.

A cleaner environment and less congested roads are big priorities for our nation. Freight rail helps by spending billions of its private funds each year – almost $26 billion in 2016 alone – to maintain a world-class freight transportation network. In the process, they’re  moving the raw materials and goods that keep America’s economy strong while delivery a more sustainable future.