Hurricane Update & Railroad Preparedness

Hurricanes cause more damage than any other type of weather catastrophe. These storms destroy homes and cities, as well as infrastructure. To survive a hurricane, and also to rebuild after the storm, hurricane preparedness for rail shippers is essential. The hurricane season of 2020 has already been intense, and will continue to bring more storms. Preparation and quick reactions can help rail shippers endure the season, and help damaged areas recover.

2020 Hurricane Forecast

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms, characterized by winds of 39 mph or higher. Of these, 6 to 10 could become hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or higher, including 3 to 6 major hurricanes of category 3, 4 or 5, characterized by winds of 111 mph or higher. NOAA provides these ranges with a 70% confidence. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes. According to AccuWeather, “Five tropical cyclones churned at the same time over the basin Monday [September 14, 2020] for the first time since Sept. 10-12, 1971. It is possible this record could be tied for a second time this season, or possibly broken, as some of the older systems hang on and new systems become strong enough to be given names.”

how railroads prepare for hurricane season

The hurricane season began in June, and a number of hurricanes have already caused billions in damages. Hurricane Hanna made landfall in South Texas, causing $875 million in damages. Hurricane Isaias hit the Caribbean, Florida and North Carolina, causing over $5 billion in damages. In August, the season accelerated with Hurricane Laura, causing $10 billion in damages and 72 deaths. A dozen other hurricanes and tropical storms have hit other areas across the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America. And there are likely still more storms to come. Rail shippers’ hurricane preparedness will continue to play a major role in recovery efforts and damage mitigation as the season progresses.

How Railroads Prepare

During hurricane season, railroads operating around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts know the importance of hurricane preparedness. They track storms to determine the most likely area of impact and evaluate the most vulnerable areas. Railroads conduct maintenance of way, stage engineering equipment, materials, and employees in critical locations in order to bring track back online as soon as possible following a storm. Ballast cars, side dump cars, and Herzog ballast cars are often positioned near a storm’s projected path. Railroad communication and signals crews forward position generators and fuel. Crossing gates may be dismantled to avoid storm damage. Culverts and ditches along the railroads’ right-of-way are inspected and cleared of any debris to ensure that groundwater is able to flow as freely as possible.

Operationally, railroads identify traffic flows and divert trains and rail cars from the area. The rail carriers also communicate with customers to assess immediate needs, with a significant focus on hazardous commodities. The railroad and shippers often will tether locomotives and rail cars that cannot be removed from the storm’s path.

When Hurricane Laura hit in late August, BNSF railroad worked to keep customers and staff informed. They issued this statement on their blog; “Throughout the week, BNSF has been preparing for the hurricane, including the activation of an around-the-clock Command Center to address any impacts to our network and direct recovery efforts that are needed. Additional resources have been staged at various locations to address track outages as quickly as possible. Our operating teams are also in communication with local, state and federal emergency personnel.”

Union Pacific made a similar statement; “Meanwhile, to prepare for the effects of Hurricane Laura — which struck Louisiana and Texas today — UP over the past few days staged resources such as generators and ballast at strategic locations, and added fueling stations and crews in the Gulf Coast area.”

How Railroads Recover

Once the storm passes, rail crews assess the damage and dispatch crews to clear and repair tracks. Railroads have proven over time that they are well-prepared to anticipate weather-related events and restore operations quickly. However, all of the railroads are part of a tightly integrated network. A significant event in one part of the country can cause disruptions that ripple across the network and it may take days or weeks before the network fully recovers.

Hurricane Preparedness Tips for Rail Shippers

Taking steps for hurricane preparedness can help rail shippers endure the season and stay operational. Take the following actions before, during and after the storm.

Be Prepared

  • Ensure key headquarters and plant personnel are registered with railroad websites.
  • Sign up for railroad service notifications to receive updates by email.
  • Sign-up to receive railroad embargo notices. You may also sign-up to receive all AAR embargoes.

Pre-Storm

Take these precautions as early as possible. These should be completed at least five days before the storm makes landfall.

  • Divert inbound flow of cars.
  • Re-bill inbound Rail Security Sensitive Material cars (Toxic Inhalation Hazard, Poison Inhalation Hazard) away from storm reach.
  • Notify the railroad of special requirements, including unit train and special switch.
  • Notify the railroad of timetable for ceasing plant operations.

Post-Storm AAR Interchange Rules

In accordance with AAR Interchange Rules, customers are responsible for any damage, including flood damage, occurring to cars in their control or possession. This includes cars that the railroad has delivered to a customer’s private track or facility. AAR Interchange Rules also mandate that railcars damaged from hurricane flooding must go through a joint inspection with the railroad and customer industry. Car owner is optional.

  • Per Rule A 2. – all interchange freight car owners must subscribe to the AAR Interchange Rules.
  • Per AAR Rule 99 – Customers who are not subscribers to the AAR Interchange Rules are responsible for the actual cost of repairs to cars damaged, including by flood, while in their control or possession (including cars delivered to a customer’s private track or facility).

If you suspect or see that minimum water level has reached the “RED” line, take the following actions:

  • Report to the railroad all railcars and location. Includes: Private, System, Foreign owned equipment.
  • Do not move railcars until released by the railroad mechanical department.

Additional Hurricane Tips for After the Storm

After the storm, rail shippers will need to assess the damage, schedule repairs, update operations and work to resume rail service.

  • Report track Damage. Report any tracks that are damaged and/or out of service to the railroad.
  • Provide a plant operations update. Let the railroad know the estimated time frame for repairs to your facility and when you plan to resume operations. This will allow the railroad to know when to place tracks back in service and deploy rail cars as needed.
  • Request resumption of rail service. Once repairs are complete and you know when your plant will resume operations, notify the railroad and request for rail service to resume.
  • Don’t move rail cars if water has reached the wheel bearing. Wait for the railroad to inspect the car and make sure it is safe to move.
  • Inspect rail cars. Per the American Association of Railroads (AAR) interchange rules, any rail cars that have been damaged by flooding must undergo a joint inspection between the railroad’s mechanical team and personnel at your plant.

As hurricane season progresses, track the weather and conditions closely. Review current embargoes on Railinc or railroad websites to see if your area is impacted. Go through the hurricane tips for rail shippers listed above to reduce the damage and stay on top of the situation.