Trains

AT FAULT: TRAIN OR TRACK?

The northbound Saluki is running an hour late at Chebanse, Ill., on June 29, 2019. Baggage cars at the rear fulfill a CN train-length requirement to insure proper signal and grade-crossing operation. (Three photos, Bob Johnston)

SAFETY IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE component of all passenger-train operations. But a Surface Transportation Board decision in August addressing a long-festering, multifaceted contract dispute between Amtrak and Canadian National is finally forcing those two parties and the Federal Railroad Administration to investigate why some host railroads — but not others — require Amtrak to run unoccupied equipment.

The issue is known as “short shunt” or “loss of shunt,” described in the STB decision as a situation “when a train fails to timely and properly close (or shunt) an electric circuit that activates automated crossing warning devices.” Lack of electrical conductivity between the rails through wheels and axles can also result in false signal indications (i.e., if no train is detected, signals will indicate the track is clear when it is actually occupied).

A motorist and her daughter were killed at a highway crossing in Charlotte, Mich., in April 2004 when crossing gates failed to go down in advance of an Amtrak train on CN’s ex-Grand Trunk Western tracks east of Battle Creek, Mich. This, and incidents on the railroad’s Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., route, prompted the railroad to blame Amtrak’s locomotives, along with Amfleet and Horizon passenger cars, for lacking sufficient weight to complete track circuits. As a result, CN requires every train operating on these lines to have a minimum of 30 axles. It subsequently extended that demand to all routes and all equipment, including Superliners, and more recently imposed a 60-mph speed limit on trains operating with Horizon and Amfleet cars. This introduced delays that adversely impacted Saluki and Illini schedules under the disputed Amtrak-CN contract the STB was asked to adjudicate.

“OUR FOCUS HAS BEEN ON WORKING WITH THE INDUSTRY TO DETERMINE THE ROOT CAUSE.”
— WARREN FLATAU, FRA

Amtrak has insisted the culprit isn’t its trains, but Canadian National track maintenance procedures, because the problem hadn’t occurred with the same equipment on other routes. Then in late 2016, a false signal indication prompted Union Pacific to impose the same 30-axle requirement on St. Louis-Kansas City, Mo., Missouri River Runners. This year, it extended the requirement to California’s Pacific Surflliners north of Metrolink territory. So CN and UP compel Amtrak to run at least seven cars, even if passenger loads don’t warrant that many.

States are obligated under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act to foot the bill for all fuel and maintenance for every car and locomotive on trains they sponsor, along with myriad allocated costs. This removed any sense of urgency for Amtrak and host railroads to solve the shunting mystery and ease the states’ financial burden. The extra expenses of hauling deadhead equipment likely run in the millions of dollars since the requirement was introduced.

Three heritage baggage cars trail the coaches of the southbound Saluki through Farina, Ill., on May 5, 2018. Canadian National rules require Amtrak’s trains to have a minimum of 30 axles to complete track circuits.
A deadhead heritage dining car helps meet the axle requirement for the Missouri River Runner at St. Louis on July 25, 2019.

The FRA says loss of shunt is an ongoing concern for the agency and railroads. It formed a working group — initially with representatives of the agency, CN, and Amtrak — in early 2018 to address the issue. Testing began in mid-2018 on the CN Carbondale line in Illinois, says agency spokesman Warren Flatau. He tells Trains, “The issue is on Administrator Ron Batory’s radar. Our focus has been on working with industry to determine the root cause of [loss of shunt], confirming whether variations in equipment or track maintenance might be the cause.”

The FRA logs reports of signal system activation failures and false proceeds, but all might not be caused by a lack of proper shunt. Previous studies by the agency described track conditions which might contribute, such as a thin film from agricultural spraying or droppings from grain cars. Several manufacturers have developed devices that, to quote one sales brochure, provide additional D.C. voltage to “bite through rust and contaminants that prevent reliable wheel/rail shunting.” But it is possible that coded voltage track overlays could influence shunt or instigate false readings. That’s what the latest tests should determine.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says Amtrak, the states, railroads, and FRA are working to resolve the issue, but in the meantime, he says, “we will continue our practice of carrying the additional railcars out of an abundance of safety.” The passenger carrier has little recourse but to comply with the railroads’ requirement — unless the FRA steps in with a mitigation recommendation. At least the Surface Transportation Board’s decision has finally brought the problem into the open.