Nature’s Fury – Extreme Weather Can Ruin a Railroader’s Day

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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All images courtesy of Norfolk Southern

ATLANTA – A major challenge for the railroad industry is that it operates outside. Railroads build, own, and maintain their infrastructure, and when bad weather hits, it's up to them to plan for and deal with it with their personnel and money.

Railroads that regularly face a particular type of weather, such as heavy snow, may own their equipment to deal with the aftermath, but most of the time, they will lease the equipment necessary to do the job. 

RT&S recently spoke with Dwayne Gibson, AVP Maintenance of Way & Structures, at Norfolk Southern, about how the Class I road handles extreme weather events. From an overall engineering project perspective, Gibson said that “Norfolk Southern’s focus is on planning, preparation, and execution (PPE) [not to be confused with personal protection equipment] – this has been the key to engineering success on our railroad. We do this to get the job done effectively, on time, and on budget and to ensure we don’t have any incidents or injuries.” Gibson also said, “Every weather event deserves a custom response. Whether it’s fast-moving or slow-moving, if high winds are involved, and what threat the storm poses to trees are just a few of the things we consider. We also must ensure our response covers the particular hazards workers will face when they arrive on site.” For example, Gibson points out that if a heavy cold front moves into the southeast, bringing heavy rain along, it’s essential to know how fast it’s moving. If the storm parks over a particular territory for several days, he and his team know they’ll be dealing with flooding, potential washouts, and drainage problems. Storms parked over mountainous areas of the system are particularly challenging. If a storm is moving fast, it’s likely accompanied by high winds that will bring down trees, potentially blocking the right-of-way, so the plan and equipment for the latter event differ from those needed for the former. 

Gibson adds that “Location is huge on our system. We must protect 22 states across the NS system, and location will also dictate our strategy. Sometimes we have a hurricane that pushes through the southeast. When dealing with one of these, we may curtail traffic along the coast, pull the traffic back away, pull our people back away out of the eye of the storm until it passes, and then we start coming in to make the inspections and restoring traffic to service.” Making inspections is one of the most important parts of the process. After a hurricane, we must inspect inland parts of the line along with the coastal. The ultimate goal is to protect the operation and, from an engineering perspective, find the trouble before the trains find the trout. 

When bad weather strikes, railroaders must prepare and plan for, endure, then address the aftermath of a storm. Preparation, planning, and clean-up are done before and after the storm, but what is done during the storm? For the most part, the storm must be endured. When it comes to storms with high winds, tornadoes, and hurricanes, crews can only hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  

However, rain events offer opportunities to begin work during the storm, provided the crews can stay ahead of the water flow. For example, if water is not draining from the ballast and roadbed fast enough, crews can, in some cases, create additional channels through which the water can flow to help it run off more quickly rather than sink into the sub-ballast. Yet, before work can start in these situations, railroads have crews out on the track monitoring conditions. It may be that if conditions are reasonable, trains can continue to run if their path ahead is inspected thoroughly. If the railroad must stop running trains, crews will continue to monitor potential flooding and take whatever corrective action they can before the storm is over. 

Dealing with snowstorms has its unique challenges. Roads ensure their switches and other special trackwork do not freeze and become immobile. Switch heaters take care of most of this. If the switches are working, the next step is to remove as much snow from the tracks as possible, usually with various sizes of blowers. If it’s a light accumulation, we may even use brooms to sweep away the snow. Other tools that help fight snow and ice include propane torches when ice accumulation is heavy, special chemicals for brushing on track, and switches to prevent them from freezing. Snow plows attached to the locomotive pilot are also helpful. The road does everything it can to keep trains moving during snow and ice events because if snow and ice accumulate and crust over each other, it’s much more difficult to clear the line. 

Gibson pointed out that NS partners with Accuweather to obtain storm alerts and monitor rail territory conditions. “For example, the Accuweather system alerts us if total snowfall in an area is six inches or greater or has occurred in 12 hours or less, and we also have another warning that prompts our people if we have rainfall totals greater than eight within 24 hours, or if either of these events is forecasted to occur in the next 24 hours. 

When crews deploy to address a weather event, the railroad tries to keep a given group within a radius of 30 to 50 miles. Local hotels are often available with food and lodging, but if

one is not nearby, the railroad will use trailers with beds and a bathroom and contract with a local catering or food-service provider to provide meals to the crew. 

Rock and mudslides can happen due to things other than weather, but where there is the potential for these along NS lines, slide fences are erected to alert the railroad if a slide occurs. Gibson points out that weather can, indeed, cause slides. For example, extremely heavy rain can cause mud to flow down a hill, hit the slide fence, and spill onto the tracks. Rocks can fall in the spring when frozen water starts to thaw out, causing rocks to pop off the side of a hill and down to the fence. Gibson said this is where the railroad sees most of its trouble with falling rocks. 

While railroad operations pose various challenges, some variables can be controlled to minimize difficulty. Weather issues, obviously, cannot be controlled. The only recourse a railroad has is to plan, prepare, and execute (PPE, as Gibson said) when bad weather hits. While recovery from most storms can be managed in days or weeks, Norfolk Southern faced a considerable challenge when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Katrina hit in late August, wiping out much of the railroad along the Gulf Coast, but NS fully restored service to New Orleans in early October. Indeed, the railroad restored the Lake Pontchartrain trestle in just sixteen days by setting up a bank of cranes to lift the track blown off the trestle during the storm. In addition, crews cleared approximately 5,000 trees from the right-of-way, beginning in Birmingham and working south toward New Orleans. Gibson was part of the crew that dealt with the aftermath of this vast, damaging storm. He said, “That was a heck of a storm, no doubt about it. That was very abnormal, and you hope you don’t have very many of them in your career, that’s for sure.” 

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