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The “Dumbing Down” of Smartstart

by on July 2, 2019

CN Back to Leaving Locomotives Idling for Hours

Ah, the good old days, when CN’s locomotives shut themselves off when not in use, in ambient temperatures above 5 degrees Celsius. That relief was mostly in part to something referred to as Automatic Engine Start-Stop (AESS) control technology, and in particular, a brilliant system manufactured by ZTR Controls called “Smartstart.”

So, after CN crews left the yard after their shift with engines running, (yes, you’ve read that correctly) Smartstart would do the job of shutting the locomotives off for them, reducing noise, vibration, and diesel emissions during ambient temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius or greater. Oh, and it saved fuel as well…

The Canadian Transportation Agency states that “Because locomotive engines use water rather than antifreeze for coolant, they cannot be shut down when temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius. If the water freezes, it could damage the engine block.”

This accounts for why diesel locomotives are left idling for extended periods in winter months. Frankly, I think it is well about time that railways be required to idle in a controlled indoor facility in their rail yards during winter months, rather than leave them running outside for the season to pollute, year after year, if they can’t do better.

Change of Seasons No Longer a Deterrent, CN Keeps Idling

Winter has long since past, but much of the idling usually present through colder months has simply continued throughout spring, and now, into summer.

It seems, in the community where I live, CN has reintroduced diesel locomotive idling on what I have observed at least, an unprecedented scale, complete with engines that rarely seem to shut off, ever, when not in use.

No longer do diesel locomotives automatically shut down after a shift ends, they just idle for hours – and hours – until whenever the next time they are actually needed for use. Now, when the crew leaves the yard, the locomotives aren’t shutting off after them. Months have now passed, and CN has done nothing.

What has happened to Smartstart?

The Dumbing Down of Smartstart; Increased Idling

It has just amazes me that there is no apparent requirement that I have ever been aware of for CN crews to ensure that locomotives are shut off as policy and regulation requires after a shift, before they leave, and why no crews ever turn up for a shift, questioning why any locomotives have been left running unnecessarily.

If CN has any real intention of fixing this problem, it starts by making your crews accountable and ensuring that locomotives have been properly shut down, either manually, or for them via an AESS system that is working optimally BEFORE they abandon idling diesel engines to pollute for hours.

Further, it should not be up to the public to bring this to your attention. Locomotives left idling when they should be shut down? This is the railway’s responsibility to monitor and correct.

The ingrained culture of convenience is overdue to be replaced by one of consideration to resident communities as well as a basic sense of responsibility to reduce the impact on the environment, at the minimum.

No responsible company should be regressing and returning to outdated practices of yesteryear when concerns about climate change are at the forefront of public concern, and, here at least, reducing its own stated Fuel Conservation Policy into little more than a farce.

Regulations in Place

The federal government passed legislation addressing locomotive emissions and idling in June 2017. Here’s an excerpt:


Prohibition — idling

10 (1) Subject to subsection (2), a railway company must ensure that the locomotives in its active fleet do not idle for more than 30 minutes.

Marginal note:


(a) prevent locomotive engine damage, such as damage resulting from the freezing of the engine coolant;

(b) maintain air pressure for the brakes or the starter system;

(c) recharge the locomotive battery;

(d) heat or cool the cab, if the heating or cooling is necessary for reasons of health and safety;

(e) provide head end power, if necessary for reasons of passenger health and safety;

(f) perform diagnostic testing and necessary maintenance; or

(g) respond to an emergency.

Marginal note:

Anti-idling policy

3) A railway company must

(a) have a written anti-idling policy that reflects the railway company’s commitment to reducing locomotive idling

I personally like the part about not letting an engine idle for more than 30 minutes.

I think CN has yet to get the memo here.

On a recent hot day in this community, CN left their locomotives running for almost 11 hours non-stop. The crew left the yard with the engines idling, and they stayed idling, until the next crew showed up, nearly half a day later, and simply deadheaded out of the yard with engines alone.

The previous day, locomotives were left to burn off fuel for at least 6 hours of non-stop idling. These incidents are not isolated, and it seems virtually all locomotives in use here now are affected.

Idling is apparently the new normal here.

So much for Smartstart. Just a few years ago, these engines would have been shut down after minutes, not hours.

Clearly, there is a problem.

Compare this with what CN states on their website, “Driving Emission and Energy Efficiencies”

“Fuel Conservation Practices

Our train crews and rail traffic controllers are continuously being trained on best practices for fuel conservation, including locomotive shutdowns in our yards, streamlined railcar handling, train pacing, coasting and braking strategies. In 2016, we decreased train idling by 14%.”

Railway Fairy Tales

Oh, I wish. Not at this rail yard. Idling has increased massively here this year, and CN knows it.

If what has been allowed to go on for months here is any indication of how other CN rail yards are now being operated, CN has a very big problem squaring its policy with its practices.

Who Pays? Customer Surcharges?

And one more question: who pays for the fuel for all the extra idling? Well, yes, the environment of course, (what other company would possibly even consider increasing their emissions?) and then there’s all the added hours of noise and vibration, especially when the engines have been left on higher idle speeds, (frequently here, I might add) but who actually pays for the extra fuel?

I will categorically state that I do not know the answer to that question.

But I will say, that if I was a CN customer being handed an invoice with fuel surcharges added to it, and after observing such a significant increase in locomotive idling this year, I sure would be asking for an explanation, and I hope someone who reads this does exactly just that.



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