CN learns from past experience and develops a thorough plan to tackle snow and ice before they become a problem.
The unpredictable nature of winter weather and its accompanying cold, ice and snow can throw railroad operations into chaos, not to mention ravage the stress levels of railroad maintenance personnel.
Canadian National's President and Chief Executive Officer Claude Mongeau labeled the winter weather the railroad experienced during the first quarter of 2013, which included extreme cold and heavy snows in Western Canada, as an operational challenge that "hampered operations, congested the network and constrained volume growth."
While CN took immediate steps to "restore the service level expected" by customers, the railroad also developed a detailed plan to prepare for this season's weather challenges.
CN says its WinterREADY plan ensures that the railroad is ready when severe weather is expected, recovers quicker when a slowdown occurs, continues coordination between all stakeholders, allows timely notification to customers and puts specific action plans in place for specific areas.
According to Mark Hallman, director communications and public affairs, the WinterREADY plan is designed to help promote network fluidity in extreme weather conditions, including very low temperatures and heavy snow. The plan's key objectives include investing to improve network capacity and resilience; adding winter equipment with better processes, having additional people available and a rigorous response plan.
To begin, the railroad's mainline between Edmonton, AB, and Winnipeg, MB, saw major capacity enhancement efforts during the past year that support the WinterREADY strategy. CN also performed significant work on its Prairie North Line, which runs parallel to the mainline, to provide additional capacity.
CN's 2013 capital program, which was made public in February 2013, earmarked funds to continue CN's extended siding program in Alberta and northern Ontario for all types of traffic, including crude. Its mainline in Saskatchewan underwent double-tracking in portions, while new signals were added on CN's Alberta mainline and yard capacity and sidings were added in the Baton Rouge, La., area.
"On April 22, 2013, CN announced that, to improve network resilience, particularly given expectations of continued strong volume growth, CN was undertaking several capacity enhancement projects in its Edmonton-Winnipeg corridor, in addition to what had been previously planned. These and other productivity initiatives are boosting CN's planned 2013 capital spending to CA$2 billion (US$1.88 billion), an increase of CA$100 million (US$93.97 million) over the original 2013 plan," said Hallman.
CN's western corridor upgrade program, which was completed at the end of 2013, include increased capacity on the busy Wainwright, Watrous and Rivers Subdivisions between Edmonton and Winnipeg to accommodate rising overall volumes of traffic, including merchandise, bulk, intermodal and crude oil traffic. The CA$70 million (US$65.78 million) project also includes yard track extensions in Symington Yard (Winnipeg), Chappell Junction (Saskatoon) and Wainwright, as well as extended sidings on the main corridor and discrete sections of mainline double track.
Hallman says the railroad's Prairie North Line saw an additional CA$30 million (US$28.19 million) in upgrades, principally between Saskatoon, SK, and Edmonton.
"The improved line will serve as a new 'relief valve' for the main corridor providing flexibility and resilience to the network. Work involved increases in basic capital spending for new ties and rail, surfacing, as well as new sidings to handle increased traffic volumes," said Hallman.
As far as equipment and practices are concerned, Hallman says CN contracts with professional weather forecasters to assist in anticipating and responding to extreme weather conditions. The railroad aims to quickly remove snow in key areas and have its forces in place in advance of a storm.
CN also increases the frequency of rail flaw-detection inspections and ensures snow-fighting equipment, including switch heaters and blowers, are in optimal condition to deal with snowy conditions.
The railroad's WinterREADY plan increased installation of covered switches and included switch upgrades at Kirk Yard, Mac Yard and Symington Yard. Additionally, Hallman says the railroad has increased the use of anti-freeze to thaw switches and upgraded switch melters and blowers.
CN also spent CA$4.6 million (US$4.32 million) to augment its snow fighting equipment fleet with the purchase of eight ballast regulator/snow fighter machines and 10 detachable snow blowers across its network. CN has added backup generators with failover and autostart features, as well as new lifting equipment at key network locations.
To complement its capacity and equipment fleet improvements, the railroad has a strategy to make better use of power and developed a response plan for when a weather event occurs.
Highlights of CN's better power strategy include performing a winter maintenance blitz on all system locomotives, introducing 30 new high capacity Alternating Current locomotives along the Winnipeg-Chicago corridor and upgrading locomotives to prevent snow ingestion and protect radiators from snow accumulation.
Once winter weather does hit, the railroad's response plan will ensure continued movement of goods by having alternate plans for key terminals and yards, readying cold weather detour schedules, having the ability to redirect workflow to improve response time and a situation room where quick decisions can be made in response to major issues.
When the railroad revealed its WinterREADY plan in early November 2013, CN said the plan was the result of it listening, learning and adapting, "Over the last 12 months, we have engaged customers more than ever, determined to learn and better position ourselves to succeed this winter...We've examined how we can add resiliency onto our network and how we can improve communication flow with timely notification."