Year-round planning, private investments and advanced technology help ensure railroads are prepared to continue safely and efficiently delivering for customers when temperatures plunge.

Just as cold weather wreaks havoc on roads and bridges, it creates multiple challenges for railroads. Operating 24/7 over more than 140,000 miles of track, freight rail’s infrastructure and equipment are essentially an outdoor production line exposed to all types of winter weather — from Chicago’s “Snowmageddon” blizzards to the Sierra Nevada’s wet, concrete-like snow. Snow drifts can cover tracks, moisture can freeze in airbrake hoses and frigid temperatures can affect steel rails.

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Railroad employees clear snow from a switch. Photo: CSX

Railroads prepare for cold while it’s warm.

Railroads work year-round to reduce the likelihood of a winter-related service issues by investing into their network, implementing best practices and preparing employees and operations ahead of winter months.

  • Investing: Included in the roughly $25 billion freight rail privately spends annually on its network, railroads restore, upgrade and/or purchase new winter equipment and technology. For instance, in mountainous territories where avalanches are a threat, some railroads use pneumatic cannons to prevent overhead snow from accumulating. Other railroads have erected “snow sheds,” which allow descending snow to pass over the tracks without causing damage or interrupting service.
  • Ongoing Inspections: As part of ongoing tack and equipment inspections, railroads use advanced technologies including smart sensors alongside tracks that help identify potential track and equipment defects before problems arise.
  • Advanced Planning & Forecasting: All Class I railroads have winter plans. Many also have a private weather forecasting service that can issue warnings earlier than the National Weather Service, allowing railroads to make informed operational decisions ahead of a storm.
  • Staged Resources: By late fall, railroads have snow fighting resources such as plows and heavy duty blowers in place. Planning teams meet frequently to adjust resource locations and ensure other equipment such as locomotives and vehicles are ready for changing weather patterns.

As temperatures drop, railroads swiftly and safely respond.

At centralized command centers, key personnel monitor the rail network and weather forecasts in real-time. Using up-to-date information, they rework train schedules, deploy and manage crews, reroute trains and/or modify operations as needed.

  • Rapid Deployment Teams: From signal and track repair crews to mechanical engineers, railroads deploy specially-trained, rapid response teams to remove snow and resolve equipment issues that can lead to service interruptions. With specialized machinery and years of experience these employees are well-equipped to handle weather-related challenges and keep the railroad open and operating safely.
  • Rerouting Trains: To reduce customer impact, railroads will shift shipments onto unaffected lines or leverage pre-determined re-routing agreements to move traffic onto another company’s line. Railroads keep customers updated on any service changes throughout the duration of the weather event.
  • Specialized Snow Fighting Equipment: When there is too much snow for a locomotive’s snow plow to handle, railroads use custom on-track machinery. Massive bulldozers move tons of snow at once while “Jordan Spreader” cars use V-shaped fronts and arms that extend out 20 feet to move tons of snow from the tracks. During the heaviest snowfalls railroads deploy rotary snow plows with large spinning blades that dig into snow and throw it off the tracks.
  • High-tech Locomotives: Locomotives contain air dryers that keep mainline train brake systems from freezing and heated headlights that melt snow and ice. They also have Automatic Start Stop systems and auxiliary power units that keep the engine systems warm when powered down. Railroads may place an additional locomotive in the middle or the end of a train to help maintain air pressure for brakes. 
  • Keeping Critical Equipment Working: Railroads use specialized heaters that prevent switches from freezing so trains can move from one track to another. 

A partial view of the high-tech CIROC.

Collaboration and technology keep Chicago open.

Winter weather can be especially challenging in Chicago, where 500 freight and 760 passenger trains pass each day.  In 1999, the region experienced the second worst blizzard of the 20th century. Up to 22 inches of snow and subfreezing temperatures impacted rail operations for months.

In response to this devastating weather, the rail industry established the Chicago Transportation Coordination Office (CTCO) to keep trains safely and efficiently moving through the region.  To help meet this goal, the CTCO created the Chicago Integrated Rail Operations Center (CIROC), a high-tech, 24/7 command center where railroads continually watch real-time information of all rail operations in the region, which is fed in from sensors placed across the network. Together, commuter, passenger and freight railroads review plans, implement changes, reroute traffic as needed, and ensure resources and procedures are in place based on each division’s unique conditions and challenges.

Photo Credit: CSX
Photo Credit: Norfolk Southern