Contractors, railroads battle catastrophic flood damage

Written by Paul Conley, Engineering Editor; and Editor-in-Chief, Railway Track & Structures
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BNSF employees and contractors work to restore service as flood waters recede. Photo taken near Louisville, Nebraska along the Platte River on Tuesday, March 19. BNSF photo.

Record-setting floods have caused extensive damage to railroad infrastructure across large sections of the Midwest, prompting a surge in construction and repair work.

The contracting community has put considerable numbers of workers and equipment into the field, as railroads look to rebuild washed-out sections of track. “We’re operating 24/7,” said Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. President Greg Grissom. “GREX has 29 trains working the flooding in Nebraska and 40 employees on the jobs.  That’s a total of 379 cars of ballast being unloaded at any given time.”

Herzog Chief Commercial Officer James Hansen, reached by Railway Track and Structures as he boarded a helicopter to survey damage, said his company had also committed workers and equipment to the cause.

Complicating matters for contractors and employees is that crews must remove downed trees and other debris before track repair can begin. And in some places the water has yet to recede, leaving rails under water and making repair work impossible. Furthermore, reaching some of the hardest-hit areas is difficult as roads and highways are badly damaged.

Union Pacific has suffered widespread service disruptions from flooding and track washouts in the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri-Nebraska four-state area. Five subdivisons (Omaha, Blair, Columbus, Lincoln, Falls City) suffered substantial damage in the flooding. Service is expected to be restored soon on the Blair Subdivision. But in other areas, including Falls City, where water remains over portions of the rail, it’s just too soon to estimate when service might be restored, according to the latest update from the railroad. 

Meanwhile, BNSF Railway reported track closures in the same area, along with additional closures in North and South Dakota, and Illinois near the Mississippi River. “We are now confronting major flooding issues in the region, particularly in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, as multiple subdivisions are currently out of service due to track washouts,” the railroad said in a service announcement to customers. More significantly, much of the BNSF main line in South Dakota and from Alliance to Omaha, Neb., is out of service.

Amtrak announced March 19 that it had canceled all River Runner trains, which run east-west across Missouri, connecting Kansas City to St. Louis, until March 25. The company said the move was prompted by “additional freight traffic” that UP has re-routed in the wake of flooding.

The Nebraska Central Railroad Co., a short line owned by Rio Grande Pacific that operates a 340-mile network along former UP and BNSF track, embargoed all operations as of March 19. Local reports say the company’s Albion Subdivision suffered 10 miles of major washouts, has four bridges with major damage, and will need to completely rebuild a fifth bridge. Repairs are likely to be delayed for days until equipment and ballast can move along connecting Class I’s and make its way to the short line.

Norfolk Southern sent a warning to customers March 20 that it was “experiencing service interruptions due to flooding conditions at Hannibal, Missouri requiring NS traffic between Decatur, Ill., and Kansas City, Mo., to be diverted to operate via St Louis, Mo. At this time, conditions are expected to improve and the track is estimated to be back in service on Friday, March 29, 2019.”

Despite the best efforts of contractors and employees, there seems little likelihood that things will improve quickly for the railroads. Receding flood waters, combined with snow melt, will likely cause additional flooding along the Mississippi River during the next few days.

Categories: Class I, Freight, Intercity, M/W, News, Passenger, Safety, Short Lines & Regionals Tags: , ,