Railroads face 'dire conditions' in bitter Midwest cold

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Amtrak_Cold_Smedley
The engineer of Amtrak's train 22, the Texas Eagle, assists an employee climbing aboard P42DC No. 17 on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. The northbound train was stopped at Shirley, Ill., with mechanical issues related to maintaining main reservoir air pressure. At the time of the photo the air temperature was minus-9 with a windchill of minus-32.
Steve Smedley

CHICAGO — Railroads work in all sorts of conditions — from the heat of summer to the chill of winter — but few have seen conditions quite like the ones experienced in the Midwest this week.

A polar vortex across the Midwest has brought freezing temperatures not seen in a generation. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport the mercury dipped to minus-23 on Wednesday morning, and with the wind it felt like minus-52 below.

In the nation’s railroad capital, trains were delayed or canceled all together. Amtrak canceled all services in and around Chicago on Wednesday, including long-distance trains like the Empire Builder, and began restoring service Thursday. [For more details, see “Amtrak begins restoring Chicago service after weather cancellations,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 31, 2019.] Metra operated modified schedules on most lines and cancelled service altogether on its Electric Line. South Shore commuter service was also cancelled. [For more details, see “Electrified commuter routes stopped by record Chicago-area cold,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 31, 2019.]

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari says conditions in and around Chicago were “dire” and that the trains were cancelled for the safety of passengers and employees.

Railroaders still on the job have been told to drink plenty of fluids and take extra precautions during the cold snap. “We’re telling everyone to minimize their outdoor exposure,” Magliari says.

Freight railroads were not immune to the cold. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway warned customers to expect shipment delays well into the weekend as a result of reduced train speeds and other challenges. BNSF was also reducing the length of trains through the region. In extreme cold, air flow through train brake systems can be greatly reduced, causing a gamut of issues.

“Our operating crews are confronting below zero air temperatures along with wind chills of 30 below zero in locations stretching from western North Dakota through the Chicago area,” BNSF officials wrote in a service advisory. “Each of our affected operating divisions has implemented their respective Winter Action Plan to ensure that our workforce is able to work safely in these conditions and that we can continue to keep trains moving as efficiently as possible.”

Officials with CSX tell Trains News WIre that they are doing everything they can to keep employees safe during the cold snap.

“CSX is closely monitoring the extreme weather conditions gripping the Midwest and parts of the Northeast,” says a CSX spokesperson. “The company is taking precautions to protect rail and intermodal traffic, with a primary focus on ensuring the safety of our employees and infrastructure and meeting customer needs,” says a CSX spokesperson.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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  • January 31, 2019
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