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July 2012

Rail News: MOW

Hurricane Katrina, other weather disasters offer lessons in emergency response, preparation


By Kathy Bergstrom

From the destruction of the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011, to the widespread devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Gulf Coast in 2005, natural disasters can pose new challenges to the contractors that help railroads recover from those devastating events.

Railroads call on contractors to rebuild track washed away during a flood or clear downed trees and other debris from lines. They also are needed to repair derailed rail cars and get them back on track.

The challenges contractors have overcome the past several years ranged from finding a way to access the site, to housing and feeding workers on a job, to keeping lines of communication open when phone service is unavailable.

One of the most memorable natural disasters for at least two contractors was Hurricane Katrina, which caused massive flooding and destruction along the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The storm surge caused a breach in the levee system in New Orleans, flooding the city and coastal areas.

Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. was part of a team that responded to help CN repair six miles of track bordering Lake Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana that was washed out by floodwater. The work "was right in the middle of a huge disaster we still hear about seven years later," notes Robbie Ledet, Balfour Beatty Rail's operations manager in Thibodaux, La.

The force of the floodwater created an amazing sight: Six miles of track — largely intact — were forced upward into a line of nearby willow trees.

"There was a railroad mainline that was 80 feet from where it was prior to the storm," says Ledet, adding that if the willow trees hadn't trapped the track, it would have washed farther away.

Other contractors working at the site alongside Balfour crews moved the track, cutting it in sections. Balfour workers installed ties, completed rail joints and performed other basic trackwork. The track was rebuilt and returned to service in about a week.

Then, just a few weeks later, Hurricane Rita blew in and forced the same track back into the trees, Ledet says. Fortunately, Rita didn't cause as much damage as Katrina; because the track featured all new ties, not many were lost.

One of the project's challenges was the tight security, as access to the area was under National Guard control, says Ledet. Traffic in and out of the New Orleans area was restricted after dark and controlled during the day.

"We were given letters from CN with contact information to allow crews to enter the area," he says.

Katrina also was memorable for R.J. Corman Railroad Group, which performed work for multiple railroad clients following the historic hurricane.

"Katrina threw us everything you could have imagined," says Noel Rush, R.J. Corman's vice president of finance and administration. "The extent of the damage was so massive that it took literally months to get the railroads back in shape."

R.J. Corman deploys the resources of all its companies into a "Storm Team" that can provide multiple services before, during and after natural disasters. Those services include building up railroads, strengthening berms, cleanup, rerailing and track reconstruction.

R.J. Corman crews performed Katrina-related work for CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Corp., Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway Co. and the Port Bienville Railroad, an industrial railroad in Bay St. Louis, Miss., according to Rush. About 225 company employees, not including subcontractors, were working in multiple locations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Work on some projects stretched into February 2006.

During Katrina's aftermath, CSXT posed the largest amount of work for R.J. Corman. One of the most unusual challenges was in Mobile, Ala., where floodwater had tossed 17 350- to 450-ton barges, which had been docked in the nearby Mobile River, onto the CSXT double mainline. The barges were spread over only a 500-yard section, but they were far enough from the river that a tugboat could not pull them back in, Rush says.

Trying everything possible

To move the barges, R.J. Corman crews used Caterpillar front-end loaders and side booms to push, lift and pull the barges off the track. The moving equipment was stabilized by placing it on stacked swamp mats made of timber and wire.

"We used every trick in the trade we could imagine to move something that heavy," Rush says.

After the barges were cleared, a convoy of equipment moved to CSXT's Gentilly Yard in New Orleans, where R.J. Corman had to rerail locomotives and rail cars, change hundreds of wheels and brakes on rail cars, and recover hundreds of containers. The yard work was completed in December 2005.

Moreover, R.J. Corman crews repaired a 40-mile stretch of CSXT track between Bay St. Louis and the outskirts of New Orleans in less than 90 days, Rush says.

In all, R.J. Corman set up four base camps to house and feed its workers. If motels were available, the company often had to use generators to provide electricity.

While Hurricane Katrina brought widespread damage to the Gulf Coast, the F-5 rated tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., more than five years later focused its major damage mostly on that city. The tornado destroyed thousands of houses and a high school and damaged the local hospital.

"The hurricanes … dump a lot of water and a lot of trees fall over, but just the massive concentrated destruction from that tornado in Missouri was probably the most recent natural disaster that sticks in your mind," says Vinnie Vaccarello, co-president of All Railroad Services Corp. (ARS), a vegetation management and pole line removal contractor.

Hired by a Class I and some short lines after the tornado, ARS brought in hi-rail log loaders to remove trees and debris from track around Joplin. The log loaders were equipped with a new timesaving technology: grapples with saw blades that can cut up a tree without the driver having to leave the truck, Vaccarello says.

Responding to irene's wrath

For RailWorks Corp. officials, the most memorable natural disaster job of late was responding to flooding in Vermont in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which hit parts of the East Coast in August 2011, says Rob Gardner, New England area manager for RailWorks Track Services.

"Washouts are a way of life, but hurricane-related damage was new to us," he says.

The company was called by New England Central Railroad (NECR) to respond to an area near Randolph, Vt. The first call received was for RailWorks' hi-rail excavator to pull up ballast, but two days later NECR officials asked RailWorks to help repair the track, as well. A crew of four to six workers spent two to three weeks on the job. The mountainous territory made access to the damage a challenge, says Gardner.

Another interesting element of the job was that NECR "had just rebuilt the railroad for the Amtrak Vermonter project. "You still had ties that disappeared and floated away," he says.

Although hurricanes aren't a factor in the Midwest, flooding in river cities such as Indianapolis or Dubuque, Iowa, can be just as devastating to railroads.

For example, a torrential rainstorm in southern Indiana in June 2008 washed out track for several railroads, according to Scott Barmes, area manager for Balfour Beatty Rail in Indianapolis. Flooding affected about 30 miles of track for Indiana Southern Railroad and about 15 to 20 miles of track in multiple areas for the Indiana Rail Road Co., both of which called on Balfour Beatty.

Corn stalks from the farm fields were so thick on the track the railroads couldn't operate trains, says Barmes.

Crews from Indianapolis and regional offices in Texas and Pennsylvania took about two weeks in some places, and a little longer in others, to restore the track. The work entailed replacing and resurfacing roadbeds and subgrade, removing debris and installing new ties. In some places, the company had to re-destress the rail, or return it to a neutral temperature so it won't expand or shrink in extreme temperatures.

For Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX) officials, a memorable project involved torrential rains that fell over two days in July 2011 in Iowa, causing major flooding and the washout of 1,300 feet of track around Dubuque. GREX responded to a call from client BNSF to bring in replacement subgrade and ballast.

The track was returned to limited service for slow order trains by Aug. 1, 2011, and the repair and rehabilitation of the track continued for about two weeks after that, says H. Lynn Turner, vice president of marketing and sales for GREX.

The company sent to the site four of its DumpTrains™, a rail-bound high-speed aggregate delivery system. Class Is lease the DumpTrains and GREX operators throughout the year to perform regular maintenance on the tracks. When the railroads learn a disaster is imminent, they stage the equipment to be ready to respond, Turner says.

Each DumpTrain can carry about 1,500 tons of aggregate, such as subgrade or ballast, and deliver it in about 45 minutes. The equipment features booms that can pivot 180 degrees to allow the vehicle to unload the material to the front or to the side as it moves along the track.

That capability is important because in many cases, particularly along rivers, there's a hill on one side of the track and the other side slopes down, and there's no road access for equipment like trucks, Turner says.

GREX has worked on similar casualty assignments where a washed away portion of railroad and highway alike might only be a few hundred feet, but access to the site from the necessary detour adds another 50 miles or more — making getting to the site even more time consuming.

Most of the challenge in responding to a disaster like the one in Dubuque is coordinating the equipment, says Turner. As soon as one DumpTrain is emptied, someone needs to be staged there to pull it back and bring to a site to be refilled with subgrade or to the quarry to be refilled with ballast. While subgrade material is generally available nearby, the number of ballast-producing quarries is limited. In the case of the Dubuque incident, the DumpTrains had to travel to Oklahoma for ballast, Turner says.

Logistics also played a major role when Hulcher Services Inc. responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Alex in June 2010, according to Director of Marketing Robert Hillen.

"The storm's most significant effect in the region was excessive rainfall. Railway traffic throughout the region was paralyzed, as some train bridges collapsed," Hillen said in an email.

The company did most of its work around Monterrey, Mexico.

"We had to mobilize people and equipment from both the U.S. and Mexico," Hillen said, noting that crossing the border also required coordination for customs and documentation, which added another layer of duties to the project.

Hulcher's services included rerailing locomotives, rail-car clearing, washout repair and debris removal. Equipment used included sidebooms, track loaders and excavators. Once the flooding receded, it took about 10 days to complete the majority of the work. The San Luis Potosi division spent another 12 days to complete excavation and other tasks. Because of language differences between work crews, the San Luis Potosi staff's bilingual skills were an important resource, Hillen said.

The railroads and contractors have learned a few lessons from such experiences.

"We're always kind of thinking about where the next weather event might be," says Turner, noting that major railroads have meteorologists on staff to help predict weather events.

In the end, a successful project comes down to sweat equity, contractors say.

"When it rains, and the railroad washes away, it's just going to be a lot of long hours and hard work until you get it back together," Turner says.

Kathy Bergstrom is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.


Browse articles on Katrina Hurricane Katrina emergency response rail contractor track damage derail rail emergency Balfour Beatty R.J. Corman RJ Corman ARS All Railroad All Railroad Services RailWorks Georgetown Rail GREX Hulcher

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