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January 14, 2010 / Dave Gorham

(Some) Trains Don't Like Snow

I raised an eyebrow when I heard last week that, due to the unusual cold and snow across Europe, the "Chunnel trains" had been stopped in the tunnels four times. Further research revealed the train engines ingested the snow, the snow melted and the water stalled the trains…on the tracks deep inside the 31-mile Channel Tunnel. Seems a rather fragile system. But it wasn’t just the Chunnel trains being stopped: The unusually cold weather and heavy snows have silenced rails across Europe and the United States, where more snow-worthy trains are common.

Photo: Channel Train in tunnel.

It’s interesting to note how much America relies on rail for freight distribution and how even the delay of a single train for a single day can affect commercial, municipal and retail supplies for an entire city. You’re likely aware that retailers no longer rely on vast stocks of goods on hand, but instead rely on a complex system of daily and near-daily deliveries, of which rail plays a key role. Though superior when all systems are running at 100%, this type of supply line is hyper-sensitive to even a mild disruption.

Drift-busting. Source: Photo: Richard S. Marsh

Freight trains carry more than 40% of America’s freight and even modest delays can have far-reaching results. In the US alone nearly 2 billion tons of freight travelled by more than 30 million railcars in 2007 (source), and to move all rail freight to 18-wheelers would put an additional 300,000 trucks on American highways.

And it’s not just snow that can impact rail freight. Rail cars are very sensitive to cross winds from sudden thunderstorm downbursts and tornadoes, as well as strong sustained winds. A strong enough wind can topple railcars as this dramatic video demonstrates. In addition, snowpack and ice can render switches and signals inoperable, while downed trees, powerlines, floods and mudslides can render tracks useless for days and weeks at a time – all weather-related occurrences. Earthquakes and subsidence are other natural forces that disrupt rail commerce (many times subsidence is based on human activity but this is perhaps a subject for a later blog posting).

Snow and ice can bury signals and switches.

Notice how these switches (turn-outs) are clear of snow? Union Pacific installed these fancy new giant blow-dryers when they replaced the track at Crystal Lake Metro station. Rather than gas flames as used in older style switch heaters, forced air is directed through vents to keep the points clear. Caption and Photo: Thomas Merton

Ice Storm Cleanup. Source: PennyRail Online.


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