When a winter storm hits and the snow piles high in fluffy drifts, do railroads get a snow day? Despite being an outdoor operation, the answer is no. Even when ice glazes the landscape or temperatures dip dangerously low, railroads run 24/7.
Maintaining operations in the face of Old Man Winter isn’t easy, but with careful planning, experienced and dedicated crews, and specialized equipment and technology, railroads keep serving customers winter after frosty winter. Here are a few of the steps freight railroads take to prepare properly and keep trains running safely during wintry weather.
1. Advanced Planning
Maintaining operations during extreme winter weather starts well before the season begins. All railroads have a winter operating plan in place, so everyone knows the protocol before a storm approaches.
In the fall, railroads stage weather resources that will be needed during a winter storm. This includes placing snow equipment like plows and heavy-duty blowers in strategic locations, so crews have the equipment they need at hand. Railroads also prepare locomotives and vehicles to operate in cold temperatures and may relocate these assets as well.
2. Vigilance in the Days Before a Storm
Even though railroads have winter operating plans, planning teams meet frequently to shift resources to locations where they are needed as winter weather patterns change. Many railroads get an assist from a private weather forecasting service that issues warnings before the National Weather Service does. This vigilance in the days before a storm helps railroads make informed decisions as early as possible and put resources in place based on those decisions.
3. Storm-Ready Locomotives
When a winter storm arrives, snow drifts can cover tracks, moisture can freeze in airbrake hoses and frigid temperatures can affect steel rails.
One way railroads combat these dangers and safety hazards is leveraging locomotives equipped to mitigate them: air dryers to keep brake systems from freezing, heated headlights that melt snow and ice, and automatic start-stop systems and auxiliary power to keep engines warm even when they’re powered down.
Railroads analyze train size and locomotive configurations to determine the optimal designs to use during extreme weather. For instance, railroads have learned that placing an extra locomotive in the middle or at the end of a train can help maintain air pressure for brakes during freezing weather.
4. Smart Sensors
Extreme cold can cause rails to split or crack. To make sure these defects don’t pose safety hazards or disrupt operations, railroads perform ongoing track inspections. Technology that aids in these inspections includes smart sensors located alongside tracks that help catch track and equipment defects early and flag them for repair.
5. Specialty Equipment
Locomotives are equipped with a plow in front to push snow away from the tracks. But when the snow is too deep for the locomotive plow to handle, railroads use on-track machinery, massive bulldozers and specialized cars that can move tons of snow at once.
For instance, Union Pacific’s Air Forced One snow removal fleet uses jet-powered air to blast snow off switches and tracks in blizzard conditions. The specialty equipment uses cool air rather than hot air, which would otherwise melt the snow, creating ice and runoff.
Railroads also keep trains moving from one track to another using specialized heaters that prevent switches from freezing.
6. Creative Uses of Trains
In addition to specialized equipment, railroads use locomotives in unique ways to stay on top of winter weather and unpredictable weather patterns.
One way Union Pacific finds creative uses of trains is with “blizzard buses,” which are modified cabooses used to store winter resources and supplies and provide shelter for crews. Likewise, “snow buses” are locomotives without freight that run across rail lines every two to three hours to keep them open.
7. Talented Teams
It takes a village to respond to winter weather. Signal and track repair crews make sure network assets are fixed quickly after damage. Mechanical engineers must be on hand to resolve equipment issues. Dispatchers are needed to reroute trains to avoid winter weather and blizzard conditions. And those are just a few of the talented people needed to keep operations running in the winter.
At Union Pacific, we also have a 24-hour Weather Command Center staffed with operations experts to address service interruptions as quickly and safely as possible.
“As we all prepare for the uncertainty that winter brings every year, the confidence we have in our team's ability to handle what nature throws our way is what makes the Union Pacific team world class and reassures us we are ready for what nature has in store for us," said Danny Torres, Senior Vice President of Northern Region Operations.
To learn more about what freight railroads do to keep delivering goods during the winter, visit the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Winter Weather Fact Sheet.
To learn more about how to ship your freight by rail, answer a few questions and an expert will be in touch. If you’re already a railroad customer, check out this winter weather action plan for rail shippers.
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