Unions that represent rail workers are lobbying for a state law that would limit the length of trains.

“Longer trains lead to more accidents, are more unsafe, they lead to more blocked crossings and, for our small communities in Iowa, that could be a life or death situation of if your house is on fire or your grandma or child is having a medical issue, then that ambulance could not get to you on time,” says Chris Smith, state director for SMART-TD, a union that represents transportation workers.

. “Luckily we haven’t had lots of occurrences of that in our state, but we do have lots of occurrences of blocked crossings.”

A federal report found the length of trains increased 25 percent between 2008 and 2017. There is currently no limit in state or federal law on how long a train can be. “My opinion is when these laws came out, railroads weren’t running three- and four-mile-long trains,” Smith says.

A bill to set 8500 feet, which is about 1.6 miles, as the maximum train length cleared initial review in the 2022 Iowa Legislature. Smith says he and others will be back at the statehouse next year, lobbying for action.

“We’re going to be working on legislation to limit train length in the state of Iowa to help protect its citizens and to be at the forefront in Iowa and the United States to get this done,” Smith says, “because I think Iowans understand that we need to protect our people.”

Smith, who is from Tama, has worked as a Union Pacific conductor and engineer for nearly 18 years. A spokesman for one of the country’s largest railroads has said trains of all lengths have been safely operated for years and longer trains maximize resources and reduce fuel and labor costs.

According to the Iowa DOT, 18 different private railroad companies ship freight through the state. “The railroad industry for Iowa is big,” Smith says, “with ethanol and grain and coal that comes through a few of our power plants, etc.”

Railroad traffic through Iowa may increase soon with the merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern. Some officials and residents in cities along the route have expressed concern about the increase in the number of trains as well as the increase in the length of trains.