Fast Facts

Freight trains have been getting longer—nearly 3 miles in some cases. This has raised concerns that trains may block traffic more often at road-crossings, impeding emergency responders and prompting unsafe pedestrian behavior (such as climbing through stopped trains). Braking and other operations can also be more complex for these longer trains.

The Federal Railroad Administration is studying potential safety risks and the best ways to operate longer trains.

We recommended that FRA broadly share its research results, and work with railroads and state and local officials on ways to solve road-crossing issues.

People making their way through a stopped train

Photo showing cyclists climbing between the cars of a stopped train

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Freight train length has increased in recent years, according to all seven Class I freight railroads. Data on train length are not publicly available; however data provided to GAO by two Class I railroads indicated that their average train length has increased by about 25 percent since 2008, with average lengths of 1.2 and 1.4 miles in 2017. Officials from all seven Class I railroads said they are currently operating longer than average trains on specific routes, although some said such trains are a small percentage of the trains they operate. One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice weekly. Officials identified increased efficiencies and economic benefits among the advantages of longer freight trains.

Stakeholders said that the arrangement of train cars and locomotives—known as “train makeup”—and the potential for blocking highway-railroad crossings are issues to consider to safely operate longer freight trains. To prevent derailment, stakeholders said it is important that longer trains are arranged appropriately and that crews are trained to operate them. While Class I railroads and others said that longer trains may decrease the frequency of blocked crossings, some state and local officials said these trains can prolong their duration, posing challenges for emergency responders unable to cross the tracks.

Emergency Vehicle Blocked by Freight Train at Rail Crossing

Emergency Vehicle Blocked by Freight Train at Rail Crossing

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is studying the safety risks of and strategies for operating longer trains. As part of the study, FRA plans to analyze train-handling and braking capabilities under varying conditions. FRA officials said they plan to share their research results with relevant stakeholders; however, FRA currently has no documented strategy for sharing the results of its research. FRA officials are also analyzing which parts of the country are reporting frequently blocked crossings. However, FRA officials said they do not plan to use information from either of these efforts to determine whether longer freight trains might contribute to increases in blocked crossings, and the officials believe the issues are unrelated. Developing and implementing a strategy for sharing FRA's research results and identifying any potential impacts of longer freight trains on highway-railroad crossings would enable FRA and stakeholders to better determine what, if any, actions are needed to ensure the safe operation of longer freight trains.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2017, the U.S. freight rail system moved over 1.5-billion tons of goods. The largest freight railroads—Class Is—dominate the industry and account for more than 90 percent of its annual revenue. In recent years, railroad workers and local communities have expressed safety concerns related to longer freight trains, and recent accidents involving such trains are currently under investigation by FRA. FRA does not currently place limits on freight train length.

GAO was asked to review the safety and other impacts of longer freight trains. This report examines: (1) changes in freight train length over time, (2) safety considerations for operating longer freight trains, and (3) the extent to which FRA is assessing any safety risks. GAO reviewed relevant statutes, regulations, and federal agencies' reports and plans; analyzed available data on freight train length from railroads; and interviewed federal officials and various stakeholders, including state and local officials and first responders from five states (selected to represent different railroads and regions), and officials from the railroad industry, unions, and advocacy groups.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that FRA develop and implement a strategy to share the results of its study on longer trains and work with railroads to engage state and local governments to identify and reduce impacts of longer freight trains on highway-railroad crossings. FRA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Railroad Administration The Administrator of FRA should develop a strategy for sharing FRA's research results with internal and external stakeholders and implement that strategy for its research on the safety impacts of very long trains. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
The nation's freight train network is vital to moving a variety of commodities including fuel, food, and consumer goods. While railroads generally transport these goods safely, concerns have been raised about the safety of operating longer trains, some of which are nearly 3 miles long. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is studying the safety risks of and strategies for operating longer trains, and plans to issue reports on this research in 2020 and 2021. In 2019, GAO reported that FRA officials said they plan to share their research results with relevant stakeholders; however, FRA had no documented strategy for sharing the results of its research. Specifically, FRA's strategic plan for research and development, which outlined how the agency shares research results and engages with key internal and external stakeholders in support of FRA's rail safety mission, expired in 2017. If study results are effectively shared with relevant stakeholders, then those best situated to act on the results may be more likely to do so. For example, FRA officials-who have rulemaking and enforcement authority-could identify and implement changes needed to improve the safety of longer train operations, such as by issuing relevant guidance, rulemaking, or other actions. Similarly, external stakeholders, such as railroads and workers, would have the opportunity to use study results to inform their practices and policies. Therefore, GAO recommended that FRA develop and implement a strategy to share the results of its study on longer trains. In 2020, FRA implemented a new standard operating procedure outlining a review, publication, and communication process for research documents that are shared with internal and external stakeholders. According to FRA, the new procedure was distributed to staff, and the lead researcher studying longer trains plans to follow the new guidelines in disseminating study results. FRA's new procedure for sharing its research results with internal and external stakeholders should help to ensure FRA is in the best position to achieve its research goals and objectives in support of the agency's mission of enabling the safe, efficient, and reliable transportation of people and goods.
Federal Railroad Administration The Administrator of FRA should work with railroads to engage state and local governments to (a) identify community-specific impacts of train operations, including longer trains, where streets and highways cross railroad rights-of-way and (b) develop potential solutions to reduce those impacts. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
The U.S. freight rail system moved over 1.5-billion tons of goods in 2017. While railroads generally transport these goods safely, concerns have been raised about the safety of operating longer trains, some of which are nearly 3 miles long. These concerns include impacts on highway-rail at-grade crossings, also known as "grade crossings"-where streets and highways intersect with train tracks at the same level. In 2019, GAO reported that stakeholders expressed divergent views about whether longer trains may increase or decrease blockages at grade crossings. Class I railroads and others said that longer trains may decrease the frequency of blocked crossings. However, some state and local officials said these trains can prolong their duration, posing challenges for emergency responders unable to cross the tracks and increase the likelihood of unsafe behavior among motorists and pedestrians. GAO also reported that while FRA was assessing the operational safety risks of longer trains, it was not assessing whether longer trains impact communities by blocking more crossings. In 2018, FRA began to track data on the location of blocked-crossing complaints from state rail-safety managers in nine states. However, at that time, FRA officials said they did not plan to explore any potential impacts of longer trains, as FRA officials did not believe that longer trains are having an impact on blocked crossings. Therefore, GAO recommended that FRA work with railroads to engage state and local governments to (a) identify community-specific impacts of train operations, including longer trains, where streets and highways cross railroad rights-of-way and (b) develop potential solutions to reduce those impacts. In 2020, GAO confirmed that FRA has taken a number of steps to implement this recommendation. In 2019, FRA launched an online portal for the public to report blocked crossings. According to an FRA official, as of May 2020, the agency had received over 2,500 reports from the public about blocked crossings and, according to an FRA official, as of July 2020 FRA had investigated 197 crossings. FRA is using these data to identify frequently blocked crossings and to contact the railroad to obtain additional information, such as the length of trains and the reason for the blockage. For example, if a particular crossing is reported as blocked at least 3 times in a month, FRA officials will work with railroads to evaluate and determine the root causes of the blockages. FRA then provides its analysis to the railroad and affected community so that they can find ways of lessening impacts at blocked crossings. FRA also sent letters to each Class I railroad on blocked crossings, conducted listening sessions with various stakeholders, and held a symposium to share lessons learned from the listening sessions. With these steps, FRA is better positioned to analyze frequently block crossings and work with the railroads and communities to find solutions.

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