The World's Largest Trains



April 22nd, 2021

Back in March, England's West Coast Mainline saw its heaviest freight movement take place over a 200 mile stretch between Tunstead Quarry in the Peak District and London. The load, consisting of 39 wagons, came in at 590 metres in length and transported construction materials destined for important infrastructure projects like HS2. However, when looked at in a global context, this was far from one of the longest or heaviest train formations to have traveled in recent decades. Below, we take a look at some of the truly monumental consists that have been hauled over the years. Class66AdamLucas A Freightliner Class 66 was one of two class of locomotives to haul the record breaking train in March 2021 - the other being a Class 70. This photo shows an example hauling another train in 2010. Photo by Adam Lucas.

With vast lengths of track and large sections / divisions to run through, freight trains in the United States can run with a significant number of cars. In many cases, the maximum length of the train is limited by the capabilities of the braking systems, though available traction and considerations for the route are also factored in. Typically, this means lengths of around 180 cars or 2 miles long. However, a number of services have gone way beyond this and in 2010, both BNSF and Union Pacific ran consists exceeding 2 and 3 miles respectively, with the former formed of 296 container cars between Texas and LA. 9 locomotives were required to haul it! LyndonWrightBNSF Lyndon Wright submitted this fantastic shot at the Tehachapi Loop earlier in the year. Intermodal trains can be very long indeed. Four locomotives are seen at the head of this example. Photo by Lyndon Wright.

Neither of these matched Norfolk & Western's effort back in 1967 which hauled a coal train of 500 cars totalling 4 miles in length between Iaeger, West Virginia and Portsmouth, Ohio. Natural resources have been hauled in huge quantities by train in recent decades and continue to be in some countries. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union also ran a coal train some 4 miles in length to the Ural Mountains. The Mauritania Railway, in West Africa, traverses some of the harshest conditions encountered by trains and their crew, going across 437 miles of Sahara Desert to take Iron Ore to the coast from Zouerate, via Choum. This was a notable feature on Michael Palin's 2002 BBC series Sahara, which showed passengers clambering for space on the two passenger cars attached to the rear. Others took their chances in the Iron Ore cars themselves.

But perhaps the leaders in freight train length are the Australians, famous for their equally impressive road trains, who also run conventional trains of iron ore to match those of similar length in the United States. BHP, a mining and petroleum company responsible for these trains, proudly hold the record for the largest train - some 99,734 tonnes in weight. 682 cars stretched over 4.5 miles to transport ore across Western Australia, making the US and former Soviet trains seem somewhat average and the UK's West Coast Mainline train seem miniscule in comparison. PortHeadlandBHP EMD SD70 locomotives are a common sight in the USA but here BHP SD70ACe No. 4493 is photographed as part of the Australian BHP fleet at Port Hedland, Western Australia. (Source: BHP).

To find out more about BHP's monumental achievements in rail, take a look at their From the Archives YouTube video:

With greater focus in some nations on rail and removing trucks and lorries from roads to save on emissions, perhaps the efficiency of larger, longer and heavier freight trains has an important role to play in the future. If so, then even longer trains may be yet to come.

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