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Winter storm Jaden hits Chicago intermodal hub, slowing train speeds and freight

National Weather Service shows where the Polar Vortex is reaching down in Midwest (Photo: NWS)

Class 1 railroads may have to shorten train lengths and reduce speeds to cope with cold, while drayage supply will also be tight.

The severe winter storm hitting the U.S. Midwest is impacting rail operations at one of the nation’s largest intermodal hubs.

A winter storm warning is in effect through Thursday for an area stretching from the Michigan peninsula down through Missouri. The Polar Vortex-created winter storm Jaden is bringing three to six inches of snow to the area, along with dangerously cold winds.

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) warned customers that its Chicago intermodal facility is seeing a decline in “drayage support” as the extreme weather hits the trucking industry.

“As temperatures continue to drop, it is expected that driver availability will continue to weaken,” Norfolk Southern said in a customer notice.

Norfolk Southern plans to halt empty container returns at the Chicago intermodal hub this evening as the terminal yard fills up. Drivers in-gating at the Chicago yard will also have to take out a shipment to help terminal fluidity.  

Norfolk Southern will also halt inbound loaded domestic and international container shipments headed to Chicago from its hubs in Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

Its interline service with Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) will also be hit as it closes Chicago lanes for shipments to California, Nevada and Utah. The closures will not impact shipments for port locations.

 The Joliet, Ill. market shows an elevated level of outbound tenders (Source: SONAR)
The Joliet, Ill. market shows an elevated level of outbound tenders (Source: SONAR)

BNSF (NYSE: BRK.A) says it will shorten train lengths in the Midwest due to the extreme cold because of the potential of braking systems being impacted by reduced air flow. Train velocities will also be impacted “due to this difficult operating environment,” BNSF said in a statement.

The railroad also warned that service levels at its Chicago and St. Paul intermodal facilities will be impacted by driver availability and slower turn times.

Illinois is by far the most important state for railcar transits. Just over 12 million carloads went through the state in 2016, according to the Surface Transportation Board. The Intermodal Association of North America said that fourth-quarter container volumes coming through the U.S. Midwest reached 2.258 million, a 5 percent increase over a year ago.