Railroading's hot spot this week: The Southwest

Continued temperatures in excess of 100-degrees are causes for concern among railroad officials
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BNSF Railway C44-9W No. 4237 leads a Z-train into Kingman, Ariz., along the BNSF Seligman Subdivision in March 2016. The temperatures in parts of the U.S. Southwest, including Arizona, are in the 110s and higher all this week, raising concerns for workers and infrastructure.
David Carballido-Jeans
NEEDLES, Calif. — A record-breaking heatwave is forcing railroads in the U.S. Southwest to keep a close eye on their people and equipment. On Tuesday, thermometers read 125 degrees Fahrenheit in Needles, Calif.; 124 degrees in Ocotillo Wells, Calif.; and a record-breaking 119 degrees in Phoenix.

Mike Smith, a meteorologist and senior vice president with AccuWeather, says the heatwave will likely last through the weekend and that his company will be staying in close contact with railroads on how to prepare for the warmth. Class I railroads such as Union Pacific and BNSF Railway work with AccuWeather to predict conditions that could affect railroad infrastructure and workers.

“We issue heat warnings to the railroads the same way we issue warnings about an incoming snowstorm or tornado and the warnings allow the railroads to deploy additional personnel to keep a close eye on the tracks for sun kinks (when a piece of welded rail suddenly bends),” Smith tells Trains News Wire. “We’ve been issuing heat warnings all week.”

Sun kinks occur when the compression forces of warm, expanding rail (usually welded rail) overcome the side-to-side gripping forces of clips, ties, and spikes, holding rails in place and form sudden S-curves in track. Railroads attempt to avoid this problem by heating a rail to a specific temperature which would leave the rail relatively balanced with compression and tension forces through most expected temperatures in an area during a given year. Smith says AccuWeather will issue heat warnings at different temperatures depending on the region: higher in California and lower in Canada.

Union Pacific spokesperson Justin Jacobs says the railroad has increased the number of daily track inspections on critical routes through the Southwest due to the heatwave. Speed restrictions have also been implemented during the hottest times of the day. The railroad also keeps a close eye on its employees, especially those who work outside, by providing plenty of water and even cooling vests. BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent says her company does the same.

“Each employee starts the work shift with a job briefing to discuss working in a hot environment. They do discuss heat stress and heat illness, recognizing the signs, how to prevent it and watching out for others on their team,” Kent tells Trains News Wire.

Michael Kuby, an Arizona State University professor who helped author the National Climate Assessment, a report produced in 2014 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, says heat waves can affect transportation systems in many ways, beyond sun kinks and overheated employees. Transit systems also need to worry about passenger safety and comfort during heat waves, Kuby says, especially those who are outside waiting for trains or on a train when electric systems overheat. Kuby adds that railroads and other industries should prepare for more heat waves in the future and that some studies have predicted a dramatic increase in hot days in the decades to come. “We definitely expect more, longer, and hotter extreme heat events (in the future),” he says.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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