Distributed power use increases on CSX, NS

Practice spreads east as railroads run longer trains, seek to decrease locomotive fleets
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CSX train Q-032, with a single unit on the point, crosses Rail Lane with a mix of COFC/TOFC on the Philadelphia Subdivision at Elk Mills, Md, on Feb. 16, 2019 ...
Michael S. Murray
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... and another single unit, operating as distributed power, is midtrain. CSX is increasing its use of distributed power as part of its effort to run longer trains.
Michael S. Murray

Distributed power, which has long been a favorite operating practice of the western and Canadian railroads, is invading the East.

Last year CSX introduced distributed power in intermodal and manifest service and this year aims to double its use of the technology that provides service, efficiency, and safety benefits. “We're targeting some of our longer and heavier corridors,” says Jamie Boychuk, senior vice president of network operations at CSX.

Norfolk Southern also expects to increase its use of distributed power this year as it builds longer, heavier trains under its new TOP21 operating plan. Distributed power is one of four key ways NS aims to reduce its locomotive fleet by at least 500 units by 2021, as the railroad moves tonnage with fewer locomotives, says Doug Corbin, assistant vice president and chief mechanical officer.

Distributed power involves placing one or more locomotives within or at the end of a train’s consist to reduce in-train stresses related to braking and pulling, as well as to help move trains more efficiently on territories with significant grades. Distributed power locomotives are remotely controlled by the crew from the lead locomotive.

In January 2018, when Ed Harris joined CSX as chief operating officer, distributed power was in minimal use on CSX, limited to three or so coal trains per day at most, Boychuk says. “We actually almost wound down to nothing,” he says.

By December 2018, 28 to 32 trains across the system were scheduled to use distributed power every day, including a dozen intermodal trains, 14 merchandise trains, and up to six coal trains. That’s still a small fraction of the 600 or so road trains operating across the CSX system at any time. And it’s a far lower percentage of road trains that use distributed power than you’d find on, say, Union Pacific. UP helped pioneer the concept in the U.S. and moves more than 60 percent of its tonnage with distributed power.

Harris has been a proponent of distributed power since his days at Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, which routinely spread power throughout trains to improve train handling, save fuel, reduce train pull-aparts, and speed brake-charging times.

After increasing use of distributed power in the coal fields, CSX began experimenting with distributed power on intermodal trains, says Boychuk, a CN veteran. CSX first tested distributed power on Chicago-Jacksonville intermodal trains Q025 and Q026, which typically run between 12,000 and 14,000 feet long. “This obviously helped with the handling of it as well as maintaining track speed on some of those days when it was long and heavy,” he says.

The longest, heaviest intermodal trains on all three legs of the CSX triangle linking Chicago, New Jersey, and Jacksonville now regularly run with distributed power.

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On Feb. 19, 2019, CSX train Q-032 again has a single unit on the point as it passes through Wilsmere Yard in Elsmere, Del.
Michael S. Murray
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On this day, the train's distributed power unit brings up the rear.
Michael S. Murray

CSX introduced distributed power to the manifest network in late 2018.

The rollout of distributed power has enabled CSX to reduce train starts by moving traffic in longer trains. And fewer trains, as well as fewer meets in single-track territory, reduces congestion and improves transit times, Boychuk notes.

Distributed power has enabled CSX to handle as much as 30 percent more tonnage per train with the same number of locomotives and horsepower, Boychuk says.

Trains operated in distributed power mode also can better maintain track speed than when all the power is on the head end. “Just by us going two on the head end, one in the middle, we were able to pick up track speed without having to add any horsepower and maintain the same tonnage,” Boychuk says.

CSX also identified trains that struggled to maintain track speed with two units. Shifting to distributed power brought the trains up to speed without having to add a third unit to the consist, Boychuk says.

Over the winter CSX focused on using more distributed power on its northern tier, the former Baltimore & Ohio out of Chicago and the former New York Central Water Level Route east of Cleveland. “We find that when you put a train together in the cold weather, DP cuts down more than half the time of pumping air when you make any type of a lift or double up,” Boychuk says.

For all the service and efficiency benefits of distributed power, it’s safety improvements that are the technology’s biggest advantage, Boychuk says. The longer and heavier a consist, the more prone the train becomes to separations en route. “Train separations can occur for many different reasons, and when they do … it could cause a derailment,” Boychuk says.

CSX prioritized distributed power use on trains and territory where separations were more common. Now separations are nearly unheard of when distributed power is used, Boychuk says. “We really wanted to go after some train reductions, moving more tonnage and more footage,” he says. “But that safety aspect is even greater than anything for us.”

For years CSX and NS limited their use of distributed power to the Appalachian coal fields. NS has increased its use of distributed power in recent years and now about half of its road fleet is equipped with GE’s Locotrol distributed power system, including units coming out of its DC-to-AC conversion program. CSX has about 700 locomotives equipped with Locotrol. GE says Locotrol, which is far and away the dominant distributed power system, offers fuel savings of 5 to 15 percent, reduces stopping times by 22 percent, cuts stopping distance by up to 30 percent, and in cold weather can reduce brake-charging times by 60 percent.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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