Lawmakers advance bill limiting length of freight trains in Iowa

Railroads argue U.S. law preempts states from regulating interstate commerce

Tom Barton

Jan. 26, 2023 3:58 pm

DES MOINES — A state law advanced Thursday by a three-member panel of House lawmakers would limit the length of freight trains traveling through Iowa.

The subcommittee voted unanimously to forward House Study Bill 88 to the full House Transportation Committee for passage that would limit the length of freight trains operating in the state to 8,500 feet, or roughly 1.6 miles. An identical bill cleared initial review in the 2022 Iowa Legislature, but died in committee.

“Having been stuck, like we all have at a railroad crossing, once I get past 100 cars I get pissy. I do understand that,” subcommittee member Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, said. “I’m inclined to move it forward, although I’m not sure I will fully support it in committee yet. I want to hear more. … I have some questions, but at the same time I’m not totally opposed to it.”

Freight trains have been getting longer — nearly 3 miles in some cases. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2019 found the average length increased by about 25 percent since 2008, with average lengths of near 1.4 miles in 2017.

That 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.

Chris Smith, state director for SMART-TD, a union for transportation workers, said 1,468 blocked crossings were reported in Iowa in 2022. Of those, 502 were reported blocked for at least an hour, and several reported blocked for more than a day, he said.

Braking and other operations can also be more complex for these longer trains, according to the GAO report. Smith, too, said many of today’s train cars were not built and Iowa’s railroad infrastructure never designed to pull more than 100 to 135 cars. As a result, coupling mechanisms have failed in many cases due to increased stress and fatigue of the metal, Smith said.

“Now, they’re running 290-car pull trains,” he said. “The materials, designs, statistics and safety were never tested to the lengths that they’re producing today.”

Railroad traffic through Iowa also could increase soon with the merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern. Some officials and residents in cities along the route, including in the Quad Cities and Muscatine, have expressed concern about the increase in the number of trains as well as the increase in their length.

“We have some problem in Eastern Iowa with the CP/KCS thing, especially for my town in Camanche has a problem with the long trains,” said subcommittee member Rep. Tom Determann, R-Clinton. “So I’m inclined to take it to committee for more discussion.”

Representatives for the nation’s largest railroads argue federal law preempts state and local attempts to regulate railroad activities. Under the U.S. Constitution, interstate commerce is regulated by the federal government.

“All of these arguments are persuasive and they lead to a federal solution and a federal solution only,” said lobbyist Michael Triplett, who represents Union Pacific Railroad.

Should Iowa or any other state pass conflicting standards regulating the activities of railroads, “the supply-chain gets wrecked,” Triplett said.

“If there is to be a solution that is broad enough that can handle the questions of interstate commerce, which is the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, this should be handled by the Surface Transportation Board or the Federal Railway Administration at the federal level,” he said.

The railroads also contend trains of all lengths have been safely operated for years, and that longer trains maximize resources and reduce fuel and labor costs.

“We have a facility in Western Iowa where we do testing while the trains are going through on the track. It’s innovative. If there’s something that needs to be fixed, we fix it,” Triplett said. “I don’t want you to be left with the impression that we ignore things and we just drag lots of cars through here. That makes no economic sense for us. If makes no logistical sense for us because cars that can’t run because we’ve broken them are cars that we can’t use to serve our customers.”

Limiting the length of trains would only lead to more trains running through communities, said Brad Epperly, a lobbyist representing BNSF Railway Co.

“I don’t think that’s going to improve your safety,” Epperly said.

Smith argued the longer trains are part of a corporate strategy that has driven workers to the breaking point and led to a decimated railroad workforce that is impeding efforts to transport goods.

Over the last six years, Class I freight railroads — which include BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern Railway, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — have hemorrhaged a combined 45,000 workers, according to the Surface Transportation Board. That’s nearly 29 percent of their workforce.

Epperly argued the union could have negotiated for shorter train lengths during recent collectively bargaining over a new contract, but chose not to.

Congress last month passed legislation binding companies and workers to a proposed settlement reached in September, but rejected by some of the 12 unions involved, in order to avert a nationwide rail strike.

The Iowa bill now moves to the full House Transportation Committee for consideration.

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