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— by Julie Sneider, assistant editor
The great floods of 2011 in the United States may not reach the 500-year levels that submerged parts of the nation in 2008, but they're not that far off.
Over the past six months, widespread flooding along the U.S. inland river system has been interrupting freight and passenger trains across the Midwest and Northern Plains. In April, May and June, freight railroads' customer service advisories were reporting train delays and stoppages in a host of states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, as well as in Alberta and Manitoba, Canada.
The unprecedented snowmelt and rainfall — plus an F5-rated tornado in Joplin, Mo., and a few other strong tornadoes and storms in other states — have kept freight and passenger railroads busy trying to prevent lengthy work stoppages or, in some cases, to get trains rolling again after high water levels washed out track, mudslides deposited debris along rights of way and in yards, and hurricane-like winds blew rail cars off tracks.
For example, RailAmerica Inc.'s Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad experienced several washouts and a related train derailment in April that cost about $1 million in infrastructure cleanup expenses, while Amtrak's Empire Builder line between St. Paul, Minn., and Spokane, Wash., was shut down starting June 1 due to water-related track problems in North Dakota. The line still was still down as of press time.
All the severe weather-related damage is generating plenty of work for contractors that help railroads prepare for and respond to natural disasters. The companies perform cleanup and repair work after violent storms and floods, and also assist the railroads with advance planning, preparation and preemptive work to minimize infrastructure damage and/or service interruptions prior to any severe weather.
Railroads have been hit with an "unusually high level of flooding" over the past five years and, as a result, have sunk considerable capital into preventing washouts and other weather-related damage from occurring, says Noel Rush, vice president of strategic planning and development for R.J. Corman Derailment Services, which launched a "Storm Team" emergency response unit after Hurricane Floyd struck the East Coast in 1999. Since then, the company has worked to establish a reputation "as the first call railroads make to respond to natural disasters," says Rush.
R.J. Corman's storm team crews combine all the company's resources to help railroads prepare for floods, and provide cleanup and reconstruction services if washouts or other natural disasters occur. The firm can supply transportation, construction and railroad equipment; provide certified divers for underwater construction; and set up mobile data and communication command centers.
"We've invested a lot of money to make sure we have the right equipment and a lot of pieces to deploy for the railroads when these events occur," Rush says. "We try to be innovative."
An example of that innovation is R.J. Corman's recently introduced saw that's attached to grapple trucks to clear trees and other debris from track and rights of way.
Cleaning up debris also is a service All Railroad Services Corp. (ARS) can provide for railroads following natural disasters. When an F5-rated tornado roared through Joplin, Mo., on May 22, ARS was called in to help remove trees, brush and other debris from railroad property in the area. A vegetation management and pole line removal contractor, the company monitors weather reports and is prepared to respond quickly to a railroad's call for cleanup services after a storm blows through an area, says Vinnie Vaccarello, ARS' co-president.
When a railroad receives an early warning that a storm or flood is imminent, the road will place an ARS crew and equipment on standby, Vaccarello says, adding that more railroads are turning to pre-contracting, and more often.
"They want that insurance policy in place," he says. "Even though it's a bit of a cost, they will pay you to have people on standby."
When track washouts do occur, Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. is prepared to help railroads, as well, by providing various ballast services. For example, when flooding in the Indianapolis area impacted several regionals earlier this spring, Balfour Beatty crews mobilized backhoes, front-end loaders, ballast cars, dozers and hand tools within two hours of a call for help, says R.T. Swindall, Balfour Beatty Rail's director of equipment and ballast services.
When crews arrive at a washout site, they begin by securing the area. In some instances they have to wait until water recedes before restoring the track to an operational condition, even if that's temporary, says Swindall.
"As soon as it's safely possible, we begin to build the ballast bed back under the tracks," he says, adding that after water completely recedes, crews follow up to restore the track and ballast bed to pre-flood condition.
One of Balfour Beatty Rail's newer services is ground-penetrating radar. Crews mount a ground-penetrating radar device to a hi-rail truck to determine ballast conditions 24 inches below the surface.
One of the most memorable natural disasters Balfour Beatty Rail has helped railroads recover from: the Midwest floods in 2008, says Swindall. The damage was so severe that crews in some parts of the country still are restoring ballast and track to pre-flood condition, he says.
"The track was put back in service as [the flooding] was happening, but then as you do that, you have residual damage that doesn't affect short-term operations, but does affect long-term operations," Swindall says. "Over the past three years, we've been undercutting and clearing ballast in those affected areas where they had long washouts. Even in areas without washouts, water still came over track — which fouls the ballast— so we've been undercutting and cleaning ballast for the past 36 months."
During the past several years — and especially since the 2008 floods — railroads have stepped up pre-emptive measures designed to prevent damage from flooding and other severe-weather events, contractors say. As a result, they're tailoring services for both prevention and response planning.
For example, R.J. Corman in early June worked with Union Pacific Railroad to prepare for anticipated flooding in the Missouri River Valley in Iowa and along the North Platte River in Nebraska by building berms, dikes and levies, and raising track. In the Missouri Valley, R.J. Corman helped UP elevate the track bed as high as six to eight feet above grade level. By late June, rising water didn't breech the berms and levies to reach the track, according to the contractor.
"Raising the height as much as UP has further protects the railroad from future flooding," says R.J. Corman's Rush. "It's a preventive measure."
In North Platte, Neb., last month, R.J. Corman widened a road to enable track hoes, excavators, crawler carriers, forklifts, dump trucks and other heavy equipment to move sand bags, rocks and earth to build up a river berm.
"We are working around the clock, using our skilled labor and our experienced operators to get the job done," Rush says.
In terms of the Midwest floods, Herzog Railroad Services Inc. also is working on the pre-emptive side of the emergency response equation. The company is fielding railroads' calls for the Herzog MPM, or multi-purpose machine, a self-propelled piece of maintenance-of-way equipment. One person can operate the MPM, which can reach an area 25 feet from a track's center. The machine can distribute or remove materials, depending on a railroad's specific needs, says Tim Francis, Herzog's assistant vice president of marketing.
In early June, Herzog operators used a MPM to distribute rip-rap to shore up two Class Is' track structures to prevent flood-related washouts in Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota. In late June, Herzog also helped BNSF Railway Co., which was preparing for "a major flood event" in Minot, N.D., that could interrupt service for two weeks or longer, according to a customer service advisory issued by the Class I on June 21.
"Our goal is to lessen the impact of the flooding to try to prevent washouts and scouring," Francis says. "What doesn't hold up during the flooding, the railroads bring us in when the water recedes to build the ballast and track structure back to its pre-flood condition."
Flooding along the Missouri River plane also has kept RailWorks Corp. crews busy this spring, says Randy Ruppert, area manager with RailWorks Track Systems.
In early June, the company helped longtime customer Cargill Inc. build an eight-foot-high dike around its corn-milling plant in Blair, Neb. After local officials warned Cargill in early May that it could expect up to four feet of water in its plant in the ensuing weeks, the company called in RailWorks to assist with preparing the track that leads to the plant.
RailWorks removed track panels to make room for a berm and lift the track two feet above projected water levels, Ruppert says, adding that as of mid-June, the water still was rising.
The company was preparing to return to Cargill to resurface and realign track, which was starting to move because of saturated subsoil, he says. After the water recedes — which, according to Ruppert, could take months — RailWorks' crew will return to the plant to remove track, dig out the mud and restore the track to its proper position.
"This flood was unusual in that it was predicted, so we had a lot of time to prepare," Ruppert says. "We are very, very busy, even though some customers haven't called for help because they're already under water and we can't do anything for them until the water recedes."
Because early preparation by the freight railroads can be key to preventing washouts from occurring, the railroads have invested a lot of money in, and adopted a lot of technology for, their natural disaster plans over the past several years, says Rick Turner, senior vice president of Hulcher Services Inc., which offers various disaster preparation and response services.
"The railroads are spending their capital dollars wisely so that their network can absorb the blows when Mother Nature hits," says Turner.
In January, Hulcher officials began meeting with railroad clients to plan for the 2011 hurricane season, which officially began June 1, says Turner.
The Atlantic basin is projected to have an "above-normal" hurricane season this year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We try to prepare for everything, including the fact that we [might] be operating in situations with no infrastructure, no water, power or fuel," Turner says. "There's a lot of pre-planning every year for hurricane season, so where we are now is that we have a game plan with the railroads and are ready to respond if something happens."
The roller coaster ride that is Mother Nature keeps contractors on their toes, making business hard to predict year to year.
For example, in 2010, Hulcher responded to a hurricane in Mexico that caused a tremendous amount of rail infrastructure damage; and earlier this year, the company was dealing with avalanches in Canada.
"There's flooding every year, but this year we're seeing more of it, especially in the Midwest," Turner says. "They're predicting more hurricanes this year, but who knows what will happen? We try to prepare for everything."