How do you train? And how weather affects the railroads

Union Pacific train plowing through an 8' high snow drift.

Two Union Pacific engines plow through a 8′ high snow drift near Shabbona, Illinois, after a major winter storm. The engines were sent without cars to clear the way for future trains to get through. The drift was so high at this location that only the train’s number boards at the top of the engine are visible. Photo (c)Gilbert Sebenste, used by permission of the photographer.

It’s amazing when you think about it: how much of the stuff we have in our apartments and homes was shipped on a train. You name it: vegetables, video game consoles, TV’s/monitors, air conditioners, fans and heaters, vehicles, stereos, smart phones, oil, coal, wheat, recyclables, steel…and on and on. In the last portion of their routes, they are shipped by truck. But until then, most goods are shipped by rail. In fact, many trains these days are what “railfans”, or train fans or aficianados call “Amazon trains”. They literally carry goods from online stores to a regional shipper, like UPS or the U.S. Postal Service. One train from Minneapolis to Chicago gets a sizable bonus for every hour that they are early. The stakes, therefore, are high!

Train delays, therefore, cause much angst among shippers and the general public. Their Amazon order isn’t coming or is being delayed. And one of the top reasons they are delayed is the weather.

All “Class 1″ large railroad companies like Kansas City Southern, Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National have a private forecasting weather service which issues their own severe thunderstorm, high wind, and tornado warnings to the railroads. They typically issue them earlier than the National Weather Service does, so that the trains can be stopped (or allowed to continue on) to avoid danger. Tornadoes, blizzards, and floods can shut down lines for hours or days, keeping your shipment from reaching their final destination when it was supposed to.

As an example, the loss suffered by railroads when accidents occur due to flooding can be very high. In one instance, tracks were washed out near a road in Rockford, IL. A county sheriff called the railroad to let them know that the tracks were washed out there after 6” of rain fell in nearly two hours after a late season thunderstorm sat over the area before dissipating. When the next train came along, several cars were stopped by the gates. The ethanol train hit the washed out area at full speed and derailed immediately; the ethanol cars crashed into each other, and exploded at the crossing. Some people in their vehicles in front of the gates were burned alive. When all was said and done, the railroad was held liable and had to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines and recompense to families who lost loved ones. The dispatcher was fired for not warning the train engineer and conductor, who survived and deemed not at fault. Still, they will suffer for the rest of their lives knowing they could have done something, if they only knew. This is why all railroads now take weather safety VERY seriously.

But there are two other weather conditions that cause major problems for rail freight: high to extreme cold and heat. For example, on one Class 1 railroad, track speeds that are normally 60 MPH get reduced to 50 MPH when the temperature hits 90 degrees (32 degrees C). When it hits 100 degrees, they slow to 40 MPH or less. And for trains that contain oil or ethanol, they may even slow the train further. Why? In very cold weather, rails can literally break or snap. I’ve called in multiple rail breaks in winter which have stopped all rail traffic for hours. Thankfully, in each case, the trains stopped in time and none of them derailed before the tracks were repaired.

But in very hot weather, the opposite occurs. Rails expand, and they can cause kinks to occur. When that happens, a derailment is likely. One such heat-related kink in Chicago several years ago caused an entire overpass to collapse on a car driving underneath. The unfortunate driver was killed.

They can be a nuisance, but trains play an extremely vital role in our economy, and without them, we couldn’t live the way we do today with many modern conveniences. And it is a business that is extremely weather sensitive! If your business needs real-time weather information to keep you going, AllisonHouse offers many data options to fit your needs. We want to keep you going, no matter what the weather! Just contact us at [email protected] Chances are, there’s something our experts can get you to take you to the next level of safety, reliability, and efficiency when dealing with nature’s hazards, and preventing or minimizing a disaster.

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