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NS’ storm preparedness helps minimize impacts to rail operations

November 2017

Fallen trees on a segment of NS track between Valdosta, Ga., and Lake City, Fla., are cleared by an excavator secured to a flatcar after Hurricane Irma.
An excavator clears downed trees off NS tracks in Jacksonville, Fla., in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

How NS employees take the ‘bite’ out of storms affecting rail operations

During hurricane season, Norfolk Southern employees living near the Gulf and Atlantic coasts know how important it is to be prepared. Personal emergency kits are filled with nonperishable food, bottled water, flashlights, and first-aid supplies, while family evacuation plans are updated.

But what happens when it’s time for the railroad to respond to an advancing hurricane? What steps does it take to prepare? When do cleanup efforts start? If it sounds like a task with many moving parts, you’re right – and NS operations employees run the process with the precision of a well-tuned locomotive.

This season, they’ve had plenty of practice. During hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Nate, employees worked in shifts around the clock before and after the storm. In advance, NS evaluated areas of the network that could be impacted directly and began implementing plans to minimize impacts. After they passed, crews launched nonstop efforts to clean up and restore operations and service to customers as quickly as possible.

“To ensure our customers’ needs are met in these events, we work closely with other departments to develop the priority on the most critical lines to restore first after the storm and manage the resources for timely repairs,” said Jim Alexander, assistant vice president of communications and signals, part of NS’ Engineering Department.

A team effort

During Hurricane Irma in September, NS started tracking the storm about five days before the storm’s anticipated impact, said Nathan Kronewitter, assistant division engineer track, Georgia Division.

“Conference calls are really important to iron out the logistics on the front end,” he said. “We’re all trying to get everybody together as far as what is the emergency storm plan, how will we react to the storm, and what is our contingency plan.”

Safely and efficiently handling the company’s response takes the hard work and skill of multiple departments and a large number of employees. Based on a storm’s potential to impact ports, terminals, and line segments on NS, the maintenance of way and structures group, part of engineering – stages, equipment, material, and employees in critical locations. That enables a quick response to repair track and other infrastructure after the storm passes.

“We usually stage work shifts for employees, anticipating that we’re going to be working around the clock,” said John Fleps, chief engineer line maintenance, Southern Region. “We also work with our Transportation Department to get equipment from their side either out of the area or stage what we need to assist in the eventual repair.”

In addition, NS’ process and materials group, part of program maintenance, strategically places ballast cars, side dump cars, and Herzog ballast trains across areas of the system in the storm’s path. “We locate ballast and cars in areas that we can quickly shoot to the affected areas when and if needed,” Sutherland said.

Communications and signals crews position generators, fuel, and spare equipment up to a week before a storm’s impact. Crossing gates at highway-rail crossings eventually are removed and, in some cases, circuits to the rail are opened to prevent component damage.

A safe place for employees

When fierce weather is forecasted, attempting to find housing for NS track maintenance crews in storm-affected areas can be challenging. In advance of Hurricane Irma, thousands of Florida residents evacuated, filling many of the hotels and motels in the state’s north and northwest. Anticipating this, during preparations for Irma, NS program maintenance mobilized 20 camp trailers from Birmingham, Ala., to Macon, Ga. The trailers, moved by rail and used by mobile track gangs, are powered by portable generators.

“The camp trailers provided sleeping quarters for employees involved in Irma cleanup, the rail, tie, and surfacing gangs, and crews that support line maintenance,” said Don Sutherland, chief engineer program maintenance. “Along with the camp trailers, we had two mobile kitchens set up to feed our employees around the clock.”

Controlling the flow of traffic

A few days in advance of a storm, NS transportation managers, working with network and service management, begins identifying rail traffic destined to the areas that could be affected by the storm. To avoid potential congestion, NS begins holding those trains at terminals upstream. This allows NS dispatchers to meter traffic back to the affected areas after a storm passes, said Pat Whitehead, general manager, Southern Region.

“Transportation operations, intermodal, and network and service management personnel work closely with customers to assess priorities and receiving capabilities before traffic is forwarded,” Whitehead said.

Prior to Hurricane Irma’s arrival, NS evaluated the potential for damage at the Port of Charleston, the Port of Savannah, and at the railroad’s connection to Florida East Coast Railway in northern Florida.

“We knew our route to the Florida East Coast was going to be shut down well in advance of the storm, so we understood having that route opened up right away would be critical,” said Fleps. “Our customers who rely on our service to the ports wanted to continue operations as soon as possible after the storm, so we made sure of our ability to service them.”

Clearing the rails

After a storm passes, hi-rail excavators are one of the most important pieces of equipment for cleanup. Work trains consisting of locomotives and excavators securely chained to the top of a flat car operate down lines blocked by fallen trees. The excavator arm is maneuvered to reach down and throw trees out of the way.

“We had over 2,500 trees down across every single line segment in Georgia, in most of South Carolina, and some in Alabama and Tennessee,” Fleps said.

The excavators keep crews from having to handle the fallen trees. Material-handling trucks with chainsaws attached to grapplers cut fallen trees, also limiting crews’ exposure. Backhoes and trucks remove the debris.

“Goal number one is to eliminate the risk,” said Kronewitter. “With Irma, we were fighting on two different battlefields: downed trees and the flow of flood water. During track inspections after the storm, we closely inspected all of the culverts and bridges in each affected division for erosion and washout potential.”

Over 1,800 route miles on the Georgia Division were affected by downed trees from Hurricane Irma. Surrounding divisions that include Alabama, and Tennessee had 1,650 route miles impacted.

“We pride ourselves on our ability to respond and how fast we’re able to safely clear the railroad,” said Fleps. “If you’re not organized before the storm starts, you really pay the price. Everyone did an outstanding job getting all their people and equipment into position. Everyone knew their role well before the storm hit, and we were able to execute to plan without a single incident.”

The NS team is always up for the day-to-day operational challenges and does an excellent job managing the operation every day, said Whitehead. “In times of adversity, it is truly amazing to watch this group of professionals take that to another level altogether.”