Why Would a Freight Train Be Stopped for Several Days?

On the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, on my way to work, is a section of railroad track where the track splits into two, and the two tracks run parallel to each other for about a mile and a half or so, and then merge back into one. On the shorter track currently sits a train that his been there since at least Monday morning.

I note that there are no industries in the area that are capable of loading or unloading freight from a train. Any crew on that train, once they got off-board, would have to walk about 50 feet through weeds and bramble and across a truck stop parking lot to a busy highway to pick up a ride. If they didn’t have a ride waiting for them, it’s another mile, as the crow flies, to the nearest hotel - and that involves cutting through private lots; to get there on streets, it’s every bit of two miles on busy streets with no sidewalks.

Can anyone speak to what could possibly be going on here? This happens, at this very location, three to four times per year, and in each case there will be a train on the tracks for four days or more.

WAG: Those cars are empty and the train will be back that way soon, so why tote 'em around?

It happened around here several times; something to do with the owner not ponying up for fuel.

The train is on the equivalent of a highway rest stop. It’s routine for a crew to pull over when their shift is over and leave the train wherever it is parked. If it’s empty cars then it can sit until needed. Same goes for bulk commodities like coal. I’ve also heard of commodities sitting due to payment issues. It could be purchased for a price that is unsellable due to market fluctuations. Imagine ordering a tanker of gasoline a month ago at $3.30 gallon and suddenly the selling price is $2.99 (which is what I paid yesterday).

All that, plus near major rail hubs such as Chicago or Houston, the congestion can get so bad that there’s no capacity in the yards to handle the traffic. If the train has engines on the end, it’s probably waiting for yard time. No power, and the cars are set out for longer term storage.

It could be any number of things. The train parked on a siding could have had problems with one (or all) of its locomotives, and is waiting for a new set to arrive. There could be a problem in the terminal yard, which has backed up traffic and, as things come back online, the highest-priority trains are dealt with first. There could have been a derailment further up the line, or one of the train’s cars could have derailed. It’s possible that, if there was a derailment or a bad-order car in the consist, that the train is waiting for a shop crew to come out and fix it on the spot. They can do quite a bit out in the field.

When Union Pacific merged with Southern Pacific in about 1997, the attempt to integrate the two huge railroads ended up causing a system-wide meltdown. Trains were parked on sidings and mainlines, the locomotives shut down, and the crews ferried away. The trains stayed like that for weeks, until they could get the system running again. It basically ended up being a yard issue - too many trains, not enough space in the yards, and IIRC, the UP and SP computer systems for such things were incompatible.

When your train’s crew detrained, there was a crew van that got them and took them to the nearest hotel or terminal. AAA Limo, RailCrew Xpress, etc. are all third-party contractors for crew vans.

To add to what Magiver said, when freight train crews have worked the maximum number of hours they are allowed to work, they stop the train pretty much wherever it is. Usually, a fresh crew is waiting for them, brought there by a transportation company which specializes in train crew transport. If the railroad has no crews available who have have sufficient time off to constitute a fresh crew, the train will sit there until a crew becomes available. To add to the fun, the crew in question must be certified to operate on the specific stretch of track that lies ahead of the train, so not any crew will do. These fun facts courtesy of a great book I read recently, John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers.

Coal trains are sometimes parked due to problems at the power plant, such as a major failure in a rotary dumper, or some other breakdown in the coal receipt/handling system. Logjams in the line or at the plant are however much more common as a root cause. As a note in case anyone wonders, a coal train would never be parked due to a commodity price issue - the trains don’t get loaded without a commitment to pay, and depending on the transportation contract the railroad can lose a lot of money from a train sitting there. In fact, the railroad really doesn’t care if the buyer pays the seller, only if they themselves get paid for the delivery.

That having been said, I am aware of rare cases where a train en-route was stopped due to a refusal to accept the coal at the power plant, which led to the seller of the coal issuing a “fire sale” of the coal so they wouldn’t end up paying hourly rental charges to the railroad which could seriously hurt them. (when that happens I sometimes get an emergency phone call from one of my clients who’s interested in taking the stranded train, asking me to help out).

It also may be that the train is actually be moved on a short-hail daily route, and then just parked back there at night.