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Freight railroads curtail operations as extreme winter weather blasts through

UP, KCS and NS modify intermodal service amid power outages, bitter cold

Bitter cold, heavy snowfall and power outages over swaths of the South and Midwest are crimping much of the U.S. freight rail network and causing service disruptions.

“Another winter storm will slam the South Wednesday, taking nearly the same track as the historic storm earlier this week,” FreightWaves reported. “That storm produced daily record snowfalls and record low temperatures in many places.”

Besides road closures, several airports and intermodal terminals remain closed, and millions of people still have no electricity.

Indeed, Texas primary grid operator ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said as of 9 a.m. local time Wednesday, approximately 46,000 megawatts of electricity generation has been forced off the system, including 28,000 MW of thermal energy and 18,000 MW of wind and solar energy. About 185 generating units have been tripped offline for various reasons, including frozen wind turbines, limited natural gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation.

During the overnight hours, ERCOT restored approximately 3,500 MW of load, or roughly 700,000 households, it said Wednesday.

“The ability to restore more power is contingent on more generation coming back online,” said ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin in a release.

Union Pacific

Extreme winter conditions forced Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) to close intermodal terminals systemwide. Union Pacific (UP) conducted the measure to avoid an imbalance of equipment across the network and enable a quicker recovery of operations, according Kenny Rocker, UP executive vice president of marketing and sales.

“Our operating team is well prepared to respond to these weather emergencies and have successfully handled extreme weather events in the past,” Rocker said in a Tuesday service advisory to customers. “We are taking lessons learned from how we responded to the historic flooding two years ago as we work through this polar vortex challenge. Equipment for our intermodal network is closely aligned with containers and chassis across the system.”

Rocker also said the extreme winter weather has had a disproportionate impact on UP’s network over the past 72 to 96 hours, with more expected in the next 48 hours as a winter storm bringing snow and ice passes through the southern and eastern portions of UP’s network. The railroad also reported that as of Tuesday, more than 400 locations across its network were without power, while over 20% of active trains were holding for at least four hours. Meanwhile, over 90% of primary parking is being occupied by UP’s intermodal terminals in Illinois.

The railroad on Monday said it was experiencing power outages across the South and Pacific Northwest.

“We remain focused on delivering your freight as quickly as possible. Last week, we activated our 24-hour command center to assist in restoring service safely under these adverse weather conditions,” Rocker said. “Equipment, resources and crews are positioned throughout our network to help with the recovery. We are working closely with our intermodal customers to move their containers out of the terminals and improve fluidity to our ramps.”

BNSF

In response to reports that grain routes to the Pacific Northwest are facing service issues because of the weather, BNSF (NYSE: BRK) told FreightWaves on Wednesday that it has been utilizing snow coaches, which allow the railroad to move crews safely on BNSF’s tracks when roads are impassable. These snow coaches have been strategically placed along the Columbia River Gorge and other locations in Washington state, in addition to other locations on BNSF’s network, BNSF said. Snow coaches are specialized land transportation vehicles that can operate over snow or ice.

The railroad also told FreightWaves that its mechanical rapid responders are cross-trained to resolve car and locomotive issues when low temperatures affect components, while engineering rapid responders are also available to ensure the integrity of BNSF’s track, signals and structures. These teams, which operate on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis year-round, respond to situations such as fixing switching and other mechanical issues. 

Its competitor UP told FreightWaves on Wednesday that it experienced some weather impacts in the Pacific Northwest over the weekend, but service is now back up and running in the area.

“The record cold temperatures and significant snow across our North Region and stretching deep into Texas and parts of the Gulf Coast have significantly impacted network operations … . Our crews are utilizing snow plows installed on selected vehicles to aid in snow removal on specific routes at key crew change locations. We are also using Jordan spreaders to remove snow on the tracks and at terminals so our crews can work safely and efficiently under these conditions,” BNSF told FreightWaves.

Additional updates will be available here.

Kansas City Southern

Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) is stopping all inbound intermodal shipments from Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) amid the prolonged and extreme winter weather affecting the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, the railroad said in a service update Wednesday.

The temporary service outage will occur at intermodal terminals at Wylie and Laredo in Texas and Salinas Victoria, Interpuerto and Puerta Mexico in Mexico. 

The railroad is also experiencing planned and unplanned power outages across the network amid the snow and below-freezing temperatures. 

“Our terminals remain operating and permitting ingates. Our first step to avoid congestion is to limit the inbound flow of trains. There are no plans to close gates at this time,” Kansas City Southern (KCS) said in a Wednesday service update.

KCS added that the Dallas area will be under a winter advisory through Thursday morning, and it will notify Norfolk Southern (NS) and KCS customers when shipments can be allowed to in-gate at the NS terminals again.

Norfolk Southern

Eastern U.S. railroad NS said it is working with customers and channel partners in the northern and central portions of the railroad’s network that have been impacted by the heavy snow and ice, according to a Tuesday service update

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

Related articles:

Follow-up wallop of winter weather hitting the South

CSX, Union Pacific caution about bad winter weather

Higher diesel prices likely as freeze shuts down Gulf Coast refineries

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.

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