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Great Plains flooding sends intermodal loads off-track

Flooding at BNSF's Arkansas City subdivision on May 22, 2019. (Photo: BNSF)

Flooding has become an unfortunate fact of life for many people in the Great Plains recently. Periods of severe thunderstorms and torrential rain for the past few weeks have finally taken their toll on communities in Wichita, Tulsa and Fort Smith. These cities have already been drenched with two to three times their normal monthly May rainfall, and the swollen Arkansas River is reaching record/near-record levels, leading to delays for the two largest freight railroad companies in the U.S.


BNSF rail outages as of May 28, 2019.

Flooding from severe weather continues to impact parts of the BNSF (NYSE: BRK.A) network in the central and southern Great Plains. Repeated heavy rain and storms in the past week have caused track outages on several subdivisions in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. With several extensive washouts, portions of the Arkansas City and Douglass subdivisions south of Wichita, as well as the Cherokee Subdivision east of Tulsa, were forced out of service.

Water levels are still rising in some locations, and additional outages have affected portions of the Cherokee Subdivision in northeastern Oklahoma, the Ft. Scott Subdivision between Kansas City and Springfield, and the Afton Subdivision which is the north-south main line connecting the Cherokee and Ft. Scott subdivisions. BNSF operations teams have been re-routing some trains as a result of the flooding. Service is also at risk along a portion of the Avard Subdivision near Tulsa as water is released from the nearby Keystone Dam.

In Missouri, high water levels continue to restrict service on BNSF’s Hannibal and River subdivisions adjacent to the Mississippi River. Flood gates are up in several locations, which effectively closes off sections of the railroad’s main line to rail service. The Hannibal Subdivision, between Keokuk, Iowa and La Grange, Missouri is expected to remain closed through this week. Another segment of the Hannibal Subdivision, between Dundee and Mark, Missouri may reopen as early as of Wednesday, May 29. However, additional rainfall or storms in this region could cause further delays to service restoration.

The River Subdivision between Crystal City and Cape Girardeau, Missouri remains out of service as water levels in this area south of St. Louis are running well above flood stage. Based on current forecasts from the National Weather Service (NWS), there is no estimate on when this portion of the subdivision will reopen.

By the Numbers – BNSF

• Total trains held last week increased by more than 10 percent, with an average of 143.6 trains held versus 129.6 trains held during the prior week.

• Total trains on the system decreased by nearly 3 percent versus the prior week with an average of 1,528 trains on the system.

• Car velocity, measured in miles per day (MPD), was down by nearly 3 percent at 194.1 MPD, versus 200.1 MPD recorded the prior week.

• Train velocity, measured in miles per hour (MPH), was down by nearly 1 percent versus the prior week at 16.2 MPH.

• Total volume increased by more than 2 percent from the prior week with 200,090 units moved in Week 20 (ending May 18) versus 195,443 units in Week 19 (ending May 11).

The flooding continues to negatively impact service performance through the core of the BNSF network. Overall velocity for both cars and trains was down versus the prior week, while the average number of trains holding remains at an elevated level. During the previous week (through May 18), total volume moved by the railroad exceeded 200,000 units for the sixth time in 2019. Customers with shipments designated to move through the affected areas should expect ongoing delays of up to 24 hours until service is fully restored.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific rail outages as of May 28, 2019.

The Union Pacific Railroad (NYSE: UNP) has also reported new outages due to the recent Great Plains flooding. Tracks have been washed out and closed in the Tulsa Subdivision (Tulsa to Muskogee, Oklahoma), as well as the Van Buren Subdivision (Fort Smith to Russellville, Arkansas). The Cherokee (Parsons, Kansas to McAlester, Oklahoma), Oklahoma City (El Reno to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Parsons (Paola to Parsons, Kansas), River (Kansas City to Jefferson City, Missouri) and Wagoner (Coffeyville, Kansas, to Van Buren, Arkansas) subdivisions remain out of service. The company’s latest customer letter said shipments being routed around the affected areas may be delayed for 48 to 72 hours.

For the Record

Flooding at Union Pacific subdivisions, May of 2019. Photo: Union Pacific

The Arkansas River is at record flood levels in Ponca City, Oklahoma and is close to record levels in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From May 1 through today, May 28, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Wichita have received two to three times their average May rain totals, with 12.21, 11.57 and 12.59 inches, respectively. Here’s how this May ranks for each city:

• Oklahoma City, third-wettest (wettest was 19.48 inches in May 2015; second-wettest was 14.52 inches in May 2013)

• Tulsa, third-wettest (wettest was 18.0 inches in May 1943, second-wettest was 14.77 inches in May 2015)

• Wichita, second-wettest (wettest was 13.14 inches in May 2008)

Looking Ahead

SONAR Critical Events: Severe storms/additional flooding possible (yellow-shaded area) on May 28, 2019; better chance for severe storms/additional flooding (orange-shaded area) on May 29, 2019.

Many flooded areas on the Arkansas River got a break from rain today, but severe thunderstorms and additional flooding are possible Wednesday, May 29. SONAR’S Critical Events outlines the regions at risk for severe weather, and it includes Tulsa and northwest Arkansas (Fort Smith) for tomorrow. Major flooding will remain a concern for transportation for days or even weeks to come, even after the threat for storms in these areas fades later in the week.

Arkansas River at Ponca City, Oklahoma remains at record level as of May 28, 2019 (dashed line is the forecast). Source: NOAA

Arkansas River at Tulsa, Oklahoma remains near record level as of May 28, 2019 (dashed line is the forecast). Source: NOAA

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.