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.

Got a kid’s Little League, soccer, high school football game, or outdoor event you’re responsible for? Read this.

Ball games, county fairs, and other outdoor activities where people gather can be a lot of fun. But they can be dangerous during bad weather, unless you prepare. Photo courtesy: Gilbert Sebenste

Carnivals. Concerts. Deep fried…well, just about everything you can think of. Animals being judged. Even for a small event like this still Many Football Bet Providers are attending. It’s fair time across the Midwest, and in other areas of the country as well. Cities have farmer’s markets, and back to school events like football games are starting up.

It’s also the “second” severe weather season in the Midwest. This is where we see another uptick in activity of damaging winds and hail to tornadoes. Not as much as we see in the spring, for the most part…but it is significant. And that raises the question of event safety. What if…a thunderstorm hits while your high school or little league game is being played? Forget about severe thunderstorms for a moment. Your child is holding a lightning rod, or if they’re playing football, they’re isolated sitting ducks in the middle of an open field, the highest objects around. And during a county or city fair, Internet coverage, especially 4G, may be overwhelmed with users.

It’s a potential disaster, and the onus is on you to plan and prepare for it. What happens if you don’t? Potentially, this:

Settlement Reached in Sugarland Stage Collapse

Now, your Little League team may not get sued for $39 million if your kids get struck and hurt or killed by lightning, or hit with flying debris in high winds. But do you want THAT on your conscience for the rest of your life, knowing that there was a nearly 100% chance you could have mitigated the issue?

So right about now, you might expect me to go into a rant on how we (AllisonHouse) could save the day, and by buying this or that package, software and data, you’ll be fine, right?

Not even close.

In fact, if you are responsible for a group of kids, or crowd at a public event such as a little league game all the way up to an auto race or collegiate or professional football game with 70,000 people in the stands, there are 3 things you MUST have before you should use our products to help you do anything. Here they are, in order:

1. A meteorologist on-site, or always watching the situation remotely. He or she will know the tools they need to help you when things get bad.

If you cannot afford that, then you must have this:

1b. A TRAINED person CONTINUOUSLY sitting in front of a monitor or screen, watching the radar. No, having the umpire check the radar inbetween innings doesn’t count. Having someone watching continuously who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and/or doesn’t have the right tools, doesn’t count. Where can you get training? Here are some great sites to get you going:

Once you have received training, then that person can watch for storms continuously. And to do that, he or she needs…

2. A reliable primary AND backup Internet connection. You’re at a little league park or high school football game. Do you think your carrier will guarantee you reliable Internet? If you have a colleague or friend who has another provider (say, you have AT&T, and your friend has Verizon, and he/she can tether their connection to your phone), that’s reasonable. However, I’d prefer at least one Internet connection via Wifi instead of cell phone towers, at least until 5G is widespread. Even then, two connections are a MUST for reliable acquisition of data and alerts.

3. An Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Now, don’t lose me here. This could be as simple as “stop the Little League or high school football game, make the announcement to go to your cars, and wait 30 minutes until the last thunder is heard”. In fact, if you are a venue manager, you better “stamp the hand” of those coming in. If they need to leave for shelter, they can come back in quickly when the danger has passed. But, make sure the plan is adequate, and covers:

A) Lightning
B) Thunderstorms producing 60 MPH winds (40 MPH for many tents)
C) Tornadoes
D) Any other hazards that can cause problems at your location (flooding? High winds? Snow/ice?)

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a little league or high school game if a tornado threat is increasing is simply cancel. That’s a good action for an EAP. But what if the threat is over at 5 PM, and your games start at 7 PM? Too many people just cancel the games out of precaution, but it is unnecessary to do that unless the field is too wet…if the threat has passed. Thinking this through will make you ready on game day, whereby you don’t have to spend time going “what am I going to do?”. When things were calm and skies were sunny, you figured it out. And you won’t cancel unnecessarily, either.

The science of meteorology is far from perfect, but it’s very good, and getting better with time, thanks to better technology and tools. As a result, “Acts of God” arguments in court due to injuries and fatalities at venues that were hit by severe storms are now regularly getting thrown out…IE, you could be sued or held liable if you didn’t have adequate preparation and an EAP in place. Even if you aren’t legally liable, the thought of seeing a dead child on a football field or baseball diamond after a lightning strike should give you chills. And nearly 100% of the time, it is COMPLETELY PREVENTABLE with a plan, and a person judiciously watching to make sure bad weather isn’t coming…and is ready to tell the venue to act on the plan when things do go south.

So do us a favor: get there first. THEN you can come to us here at AllisonHouse, and we can help you to the finish line, and keep your event as safe as possible from hazards coming down from the sky.

When accuracy isn’t good enough

An Automated Surface Observation System station platform in Haines, Alaska, providing weather observations from the airport. Photo courtesy: Tom Burgdorf for NOAA

Hello everyone,

This evening, I made a very interesting decision for our subscribers. Working with our CTO and programmer Ryan Hickman, we successfully transitioned using the FAA and aviation databases from governments around the world to plot our METARs, instead of using the database that the National Weather Service uses. This should show up globally within the next 24 hours, but it is available with our Gibson Ridge placefiles.

Why the change? With the super-resolution radar now being available to all of our customers, a few them, including our company CTO, Ryan Hickman, noticed that the ASOS sites and AWOS sites were off at a number of airports. As it turns out, some of the airports never got their accuracy revised when GPS came out, and they are only accurate out to two decimal places.

With the FAA using a much modernized database, as well as governments around the world doing the same, it became obvious that their databases were accurate to 5 to 15 digits, depending on the country. Even though the locations of the actual physical location of the ASOS/AWOS (Automated Surface Observation System, and Automated Weather Observing System for smaller airports) could be off very slightly, the plot location would, in general, be more accurate. Also check out the most lost at blackjack because of having bad accuracy during their play.

And so, check your local ASOS/AWOS or equivalent weather station to see if it is accurate; this update requires you to do nothing. If not, drop us a line, and we’ll fix it! We had one site that had a minor issue, but that has been taken care of.