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Motorists' wait time at rail crossings may double as CSX Corp. hooks trains together to boost efficiency amid plunging demand for coal shipments.
CSX is looking to further stretch its bulk cargo trains after adding about 10 percent more cars to their locomotives. Most of that increase from last year came from adding more carloads of merchandise.
"We're actually combining two long trains" in some coal markets, Chief Executive Michael Ward said in an interview Wednesday. "Some of the trains can get to a couple of miles long."
The largest railroad in the eastern United States is looking to make each cargo train more productive since domestic coal carloads are expected to drop about 20 percent in the last three months of the year.
All U.S. rail companies are combing their operations for efficiency gains and cost cuts, including parking older locomotives and furloughing works, to make up for a 7 percent drop in bulk freight for the first nine months this year.
With the longer merchandise trains, CSX is able to carry the same amount of freight in six days as it had in seven, Ward said. Those trains now have about 10 to 15 additional cars, he said.
The company also is looking at stretching out some sidings, which are short lengths of parallel tracks that enable a train to move over so another can pass. Most of those are 10,000 feet, or a little less than two miles, and may need to be lengthened to 12,000 feet, Ward said.
The longer trains have hurt CSX's efforts to increase the average speed that has dropped to 20.5 miles per hour in the third quarter from a record 23.3 mph in the same quarter of 2013. The on-time rate has also dropped, with 54 percent of cargo delivered as scheduled in the quarter compared with 83 percent two years earlier.
CSX is trying to strike a balance between increasing customer service and the productivity gains that comes with bigger, slower trains.
"You'll see it continue to improve but not in a dramatic matter," Ward said.
For now, motorists will have to be patient at rail crossings because most railroads want their locomotives to pull more cars.
Union Pacific Corp., the largest publicly traded railroad, said in July it operated trains at record length in the second quarter and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. said its trains grew longer by 3 percent in the same quarter.
"Everybody has been pushing toward longer trains because that is one of the ways to get efficiency," Ward said.