The operational team at a Class I railroad was working to finalize train departure schedules for the next week. That’s when it spotted something on the railroad’s weather intelligence dashboard: An unexpected high-wind storm was coming in three days and was forecast to hit a train en route, potentially derailing cars and causing hundreds of thousands in damages.
The team quickly visualized the incoming wind and the hyperlocal locations that would be impacted:
It worked quickly to reschedule and re-route trains to avoid the incoming storm. Sure enough, three days later, the major wind storm hit, but thankfully there were no trains on the line to be damaged or derailed. Crisis averted.
The team was able to see incoming winds of 50+ MPH three days out, understanding the impact down to the rail level. With that data on-hand, it proactively adapted to the incoming storm and saved the company millions of dollars in damages.
The Risk of Ignoring Weather
The railroad industry has become even more essential to the day-to-day operations of the U.S. economy due to the impact of COVID-19. As the world’s most productive, safest and lowest-cost freight system, rail is an essential service that is only growing.
But there’s a problem. The industry suffers from hundreds of millions of dollars in weather related damages every year, and it’s an issue all seven of the Class I railroads and 600 short-line and regional railroads suffer from throughout the 140,000 track-mile system across the U.S.
The average cost of a derailment is—at minimum—$2 million. A study done by the Volpe National Transportation System identified additional major categories of weather-related damages, and the average cost per incident, which include:
- Collision: $150,285
- Obstruction: $77,971
- Fire/Violent Eruption: $35,000
- Other: $80,797
In addition to these costs, the average number of injuries/deaths per incident include:
- 2 injuries or deaths for each derailment incident.
- 1 injury or deaths for each collision/other incident.
- 0.5 injury or deaths for each obstruction incident.
While these are scary numbers, what’s more concerning is the rate at which annual train financial damages can increase if not managed properly. For instance, a study done by Princeton University showed how annual train financial damages increased 38% over the course of just a nine-year period.
Weather Events That Make an Impact
While there are a number of weather events that can impact railroad operations, only a few can cause serious issues like delays or derailments. These can be categorized by the percentage of total incidents each cause:
- Temperature extremes (heat, cold, variation) represent 26.1% of railroad weather incidents.
- Liquid precipitation: 23.1%
- Wind velocity: 20.9%
- Frozen precipitation: 18.5%
- Fog: 2.6%
- Other: 2.1%
- Frozen load: 1.2%
- Slide (snow, mud, rock): 5.0%
- Lightning: 0.5%
Given seasonality, Volpe’s report goes on to highlight which months on average represent the greatest weather risk (which naturally will vary by location), as well as the time of day when each event occurred.
There are some obvious takeaways from these charts, like snow risk in January and heat risk in July. However, the data is simply not actionable at the hyperlocal level.
The aggregation of the seasonality data along with the time of day data is where things start to become more valuable if combined with additional data sources. For instance, note the morning brings the highest risk of precipitation, the middle of the day is susceptible to temperature variability, and later in the day sees the highest percent of wind-related accidents.
Improving Operations Best Practices
Railroad operational teams have to make a number of decisions in and around the weather today, which Volpe’s study goes on to document. Essentially, the three main Clarus attributes consist of sky, track, and hydro. (CBRN is an additional hazard, but not one that’s relevant to this discussion.) Here are a few of the types of decisions each of these core attributes impact, and how rail operations specifically can better minimize risk.
Attribute 1: Skies
Elements: This includes temperature variability, wind, tornadoes, precipitation, visibility, and air quality
Insights and decisions:
- Understand crosswinds to move and shift weight or stop train.
- Usage of high profile railcars and double-stacked container trains.
- Go/no-go departure/arrival decisions.
- Scheduling and delivery.
- Staff safety.
- Cargo risk.
- Delays and stoppage.
- Visibility risk from fog or structural risk from wind gusts.
- Operational improvements, procedures and protocols.
Attribute 2: Track
Elements: Track condition from wetness, temperature, ice, snow, water, surface temperature and moisture
Insights and decisions:
- Trip time ETAs.
- Staffing and scheduling.
- Contingency plans.
- Dispatch, routing, and re-routing in real time.
Attribute 3: Hydro
Elements: Risk from nearby rivers, streams, lakes, coast including soil saturation, water levels, flow rate, flood stage, wave height
Insights and decisions:
- Soil saturation impacting rails and necessitating rail inspection.
- Routing and rerouting in real time.
- Optimizing connections for intermodal transfers.
- Strategizing railcar placement and staging equipment.
Each specific type of weather event has a real impact on railroad operations, from small to large. For rail operators, trying to predict and understand which weather events will happen, when and where, the impact quickly becomes a 24/7 job. Because this is so difficult to predict and forecast, the railroad industry has been operating with a heightened level of risk exposure for decades. Until now, there hasn’t been a way to automate risk impact across all trains and rails during every second of every day.
Predictive Weather Intelligence
Thankfully, these weather elements, operational nightmares and deep financial implications of the weather on railroads don’t have to mean immediate business losses. With a weather intelligence platform and insights dashboards, the aggregate of hundreds of millions of weather data points can be seen to obtain actionable operational guidance across hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of locations.
ClimaCell’s Insights Dashboard tracks trains and schedules days in advance, and provides alerts when specific locations are at risk of a weather event. Custom weather impact use cases can be managed and optimized, as well as prebuilt templates developed in cooperation with the rail industry.
It’s about more than just the forecast. The impact of upcoming weather on operations takes into account historical, real-time, and forecasted data for all locations. The exact steps to proactively mitigate the impact of operational, financial, and safety risks will be known.
Teams can also automate employee communications and protocols to ensure one source of truth with automated messaging and alerts. Instead of sending out a manual email, everyone will be automatically be notified when a storm is incoming.
It’s clear that weather has always had a massive impact on rail operations. But it’s only recently that operators have been able to access the necessary data to power proactive decision-making. Weather intelligence can easily save a railroad millions.
Dan Slagen is CMO of ClimaCell, a developer of weather intelligence platforms. He is a start-up executive specializing in scaling global go-to-market functions from early stage to $100MM+ in ARR. With experience in both B2B and B2C at companies such as HubSpot and Wayfair, Slagen has built teams across marketing, growth, sales, customer success and business development, and also founded and sold his own video tech start-up. A frequent contributor and advisor to the start-up community, Dan has spoken at more than 50 conferences and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, TechCrunch, and Bloomberg TV, among others.