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Keeping the trains moving in a polar vortex

April 2019

Over the past six years, NS operations employees have weathered two polar vortex systems – during the winter of 2013-2014 and in the winter that just passed. In this photo, taken during the 2013-2014 vortex, Jason Holmes, a maintenance-of-way foreman at NS’ rail yard in Elkhart, Indiana, waves to acknowledge a train crew that thanked him after approaching a switch Holmes had just cleared for them.

When the going gets tough, NS operations employees get tougher

With signs of spring blossoming, employees across Norfolk Southern’s Northern and Central regions are more than ready to put winter in their rearview mirror. It was a winter for the record books – and an opportunity for the men and women of NS to show there’s no better railroaders in the business.

When there’s ice and snow everywhere and the wind chill hits minus 40 or 50 degrees – as it did across northern Illinois and Indiana in late January and early February – just getting out your front door can be a challenge.

“It’s hard to describe how difficult things are in weather like that – nothing works when it’s minus 40 degrees out,” said Mike Vawter, communications and signals division manager on the Dearborn Division. “Getting around is hard, and we have vehicles that get stuck. Trying to turn something with a wrench, with all the clothing you have on, makes it so much more difficult. Walking out to a location can be difficult, and then you have to troubleshoot whatever problem you have, and you really can’t stand out there for very long because it’s so cold.”

For nearly a week during this brutal polar vortex, employees patrolled tracks, kept locomotives and rail cars operating, and moved trains through yards and across the network to deliver customers’ freight.

 “Everybody was out there fighting through the elements, and they did one heck of a job protecting the railroad,” said Dwayne Gibson, former division engineer on the Dearborn who is now chief engineer program maintenance. “You can’t brag on your team enough about all their commitment and dedication to service.”

Keeping the trains moving

Working around the clock, track maintenance and C&S personnel teamed up on “cold patrols,” riding the track in hi-rail vehicles in search of broken rail that could derail a train and other issues that could disrupt operations.

“You’re looking for anything unusual,” said Eric Cooper, track supervisor on the Illinois Division based in Lafayette, Indiana. “Anything that could slow down train operations we try to find it ahead of time to get it repaired to keep traffic moving.”

Extreme cold causes steel rails to contract, which can result in a broken rail or “pull apart” at rail joints. Track maintenance employees on cold patrol carried wraparound joint bars that they could bolt on to the rail as a temporary repair. They used “fire snakes,” a material placed along the rail base and set afire to heat and expand the rail to make repairs.

“You can put a wraparound bar on fairly quickly and keep the trains moving, on restricted speed, until the dispatchers see a break in action and give a track gang an hour or so to cut the rail out and change it,” said Eddie Otey, chief engineer line maintenance.

Employees at Elkhart yard dress in layers of clothing to ward off the cold during the polar vortex in the winter of 2013-2014.

In temperatures so frigid, protective gear and safety precautions are paramount, Cooper said. Employees wore anti-slip boots, insulated coveralls, thermal underwear, warm head gear under hardhats, and winter gloves and glove liners. Employees warmed up in heated truck cabs or field facilities to avoid overexposure to the cold.

A major challenge was clearing ice and snow that froze around switches. Transportation adjusted operations to avoid movements that required switches to be thrown, putting a priority on running trains in one direction on the tracks, said Jon Sullivan, senior director train operations.

“Basically, we only used the switches where we had people positioned to minimize the switch usage,” Sullivan said.

A plan of action is key

Cabell Brockman, division superintendent of the Dearborn Division, said preparations made in advance of the polar vortex helped NS weather the event. Operations set up division command centers to ensure good communications between the Network Operations Center in Atlanta and operations people in the field. This was key to coordinating the most efficient response to issues, he said.

“Having a good plan of action was the biggest thing,” Brockman said, adding that every decision before and after the polar vortex was driven by the five principles that underpin NS’ new strategic plan: serve the customer, manage assets, control costs, work safely, and develop people.

“If it was right for our core principles that’s what we instilled in our decision-making,” Brockman said.

A team effort

Brockman praised the performance by NS’ field operations employees.

“Our engineering groups were all over any issues out there that were track and switch or signal related, and their quick response time was vital,” he said. “Mechanical had teams around the clock ready to respond, and the same thing with transportation – we lined people up with 24-hour coverage to ensure we had the right teams in place.”

At NS’ Elkhart yard in Indiana, where the wind chill dipped to minus 65 degrees, terminal track maintenance-of-way employees worked 12-hour shifts around the clock for about 18 consecutive days, said Jason Holmes, the yard’s inspect and report foreman in engineering. Among other things, his team helped keep the switching yard’s 380 switches clear of snow and ice and ensured that the yard’s 72 classification tracks were operable when needed.

An employee clears snow off the tracks in NS’ Elkhart yard during the 2013-2014 polar vortex.

“It was all hands on deck,” Holmes said. “The employees at Elkhart take great pride in our terminal and in their work. It all starts with attitude, and when they’re presented with a challenge like the polar vortex, everyone gets on the same page with the same mission. They did a really impressive job of keeping things moving.”

NS’ bridges and buildings group staged employees 24/7 at the nine moveable bridges on the Dearborn Division. They kept the bridges’ mechanical parts cleared of ice and well-lubricated, and NS did not experience any issues, said Matt Stang, assistant division engineer, bridges.

Jason Day, senior general foreman, mechanical, Chicago, said supervisors across the region made sure break rooms had hot beverages and soup available for employees. Employees in yard operations prepared by inspecting and maintaining yard air compressors and the yard air system to ensure they were operable and protected from the cold.

“Weather preparation in our region turns into what can you do to anticipate and get ahead of it and stay ahead of it – otherwise you end up digging yourself out of a pretty deep hole,” Day said.

On the locomotive side in Chicago, Nathan Logsdon, senior general foreman, said a big concern was ensuring that locomotives in the yards were properly notched up to ensure the engine cooling water didn’t freeze. “We had a full team on board, and everyone showed up and did an excellent job,” he said.

 “In these kind of weather events, it really comes down to hard work,” said Mick Ireton, chief engineer C&S. “It’s what we do. We attack it as a team effort.”