The private, nearly 140,000-mile U.S. freight rail network crisscrosses the nation from Florida coastal ports into Illinois flatlands and Montana dry plains.
This backbone of the national supply chain is effectively a 24/7 outdoor assembly line, often putting railroads in the path of hurricanes, snow storms, wildfires and other natural disasters. With safety always a top priority, railroads collaboratively prepare for and respond to these weather threats to minimize network impact, swiftly restore service for customers and help communities rebuild.
Railroads actively prepare for the variety of natural disasters that could impact the network. By monitoring weather closely and coordinating directly with customers and emergency agencies, the freight rail industry takes necessary precautions to protect employees, rail infrastructure and shipments. Detailed contingency plans govern operational changes, personnel and asset allocation, and company communication throughout the weather event. As part of general preparation, railroads could:
- Utilize 24/7 command centers and work with contracted weather personnel using customized monitoring tools.
- Begin customer communications — which will last until service is fully restored — and hold traffic if necessary.
- Reroute trains, relocate business personnel, and move equipment, locomotives, railcars and cargo out of areas likely to be affected.
- Stockpile construction equipment to repair tracks/bridges; generators and fuel to restore signals/grade crossings; and ballast for tracks.
- Position civil engineers, signal maintainers, track maintenance workers, inspectors and other critical personnel to begin recovery as soon as it is safe.
No matter the type of disruption, railroads work together to fully restore network operations as quickly and safely as possible. Through coordination with local, state and federal emergency agencies, railroad inspectors assess network safety and triage damage before working with civil engineers and maintenance crews to begin repairs. Once repairs are complete, railroads restart network operations in close communication with customers.
- Examine track damage and remove small debris where possible.
- Inspect dangerous areas with drones and helicopters to keep employees safe and speed up assessments.
- Inspect bridges, including deploying divers to look at underwater infrastructure.
- Use cranes, bulldozers, chainsaws and other equipment to remove large debris from rail infrastructure, such as downed trees.
- Replace track, add ballast and re-install or install new ties.
- Repair damaged bridges and remove obstructions.
- Coordinate with local utilities to restore electrical power and telephone communications.
- Inspect and repair damaged train movement and grade crossing signals.
- Coordinate with customers to determine and prioritize which locations are ready to receive and dispatch traffic.
- Start traffic at reduced speeds where necessary while workers continue making repairs.
- Fully restore network operations after workers safely complete critical repairs.
Railroads care deeply about the communities they serve and often have employees living in affected areas. As part of relief efforts, railroads work with state, local and federal organizations to move critical supplies such as food, water, temporary shelter, fuel and lumber into communities and large debris out of disaster zones to help people begin rebuilding their lives. Railroads also often support the important efforts of relief organizations.
After recovery and relief efforts end, the rail industry modifies their natural disaster contingency plans to make a safe network even safer. Additionally, railroads take preventative measures to mitigate the impact of future weather emergencies. For example, railroads have:
- Placed seismic, wind and water detectors along high-risk parts of the network.
- Developed fire prevention programs that clear train routes of grasses and brush to prevent wildfires, as well as built specialized fire trains that carry thousands of gallons of water and hundreds of gallons of firefighting foam.
- Rebuilt and moved electrical equipment to higher elevations, and raised tracks and bridges to better protect against flooding.
- Geomaped track to assess vulnerabilities.
- Proactively cleared snow to prevent avalanches.