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Universities’ research aims to make railroads climate resilient

FRA, Amtrak also seeking to address ensuring healthy rail network amid extreme weather events

California wildfires that closed down portions of the Union Pacific and BNSF train networks for days. Severe flooding in the Midwest that damaged tracks. The extreme cold temperatures of Texas in February 2021 that caused considerable service disruptions on the freight rail system.

While the rail industry is accustomed to seasonal disruptions such as winter blizzards, the possibility of even more extreme weather events as a result of climate change takes disruption threats to a new level. Furthermore, these extreme weather interruptions come at a time when the height of the COVID-19 pandemic showed how vulnerable the supply chain can be. 

“Extreme weather and heat and their aftereffects can have catastrophic impacts,”  Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), told FreightWaves. “It threatens lives, destroys equipment, disrupts service and literally costs billions of dollars for response and recovery to the transport sector in the communities served. And so when I think about freight, for example, we’re already in such a crisis when it comes to the supply chain. If that were to further be disrupted because of different climate-related events then that just exasperates the problem further.”

With this in mind, Philbrick’s organization is seeking to address how the U.S. passenger and freight rail network can become climate resilient. 

MTI is coordinating a multi-university consortium that will seek to address the effects of climate change on the American freight and passenger rail network. The group will establish a training and research program aimed at how railroads and associated stakeholders can address the impact of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. 

“We need to look at how we can be resilient and adapt and not have a huge disruption,” Philbrick said. “So to do  that, of course, you need to plan. You need to build. You need to maintain because we have not been doing that very well with our crumbling infrastructure and operate in a way that helps communities anticipate.

“We know this is coming, so let’s start anticipating and preparing and then adapting to these [events]. I think the challenge so far, quite honestly, is that we focus more on responding to these events and recovering from them, as opposed to planning to avoid the outcomes in the first place.”

In June, MTI was awarded a $4.6 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration’s consolidated rail infrastructure and safety improvements program, known as the CRISI grants, for the creation of the consortium.

The group will include Colorado State University-Pueblo, Michigan State University, Oregon State University and the University of Hawaii. It will work with partners Virginia-based engineering R&D company Ensco and the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado, to test technologies and utilize TTC’s revenue service track.

Defining what climate resiliency means for railroads

Philbrick defines climate resiliency as the ability to anticipate, prepare for and respond to hazardous events, trends or disturbances related to climate.

While FreightWaves has reported on some of the freight rail service disruptions that occurred as a result of extreme weather events, the climate change-related problems can extend to passenger rail as well. 

For instance, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco, the fifth-busiest passenger rail line in the nation, fell victim over the summer to sun kinks, which is when extreme heat causes the track to turn into “sort of like rail spaghetti,” said Philbrick, adding that in the last 40 years there have been more than 2,100 train derailments as a result of the rail-buckling reality.

“The railroads are absolutely vital to the mobility of people and goods,” Philbrick said. “Hard stop. I mean, there you go. … [As] the climate warms, we’re going to continue to have fires, maybe flooding, mudslides [and] other associated critical events. So, making sure that we’re investing now and understanding what’s effective to help people to plan for rather than respond to these types of events is very powerful.”

A list of the consortium’s five research projects, which must be completed in two years:

  • Conduct a pilot study for the detection and prediction of climate and extreme events over the North American rail network using multimodal sensors.
  • Create a climate resilience extreme events portal that will serve as a repository for best practices for freight and passenger rail planning. The portal will serve as a tool that can help practitioners plan and adapt to climate risks and mitigate their impacts. It could also act as a tool to help planners determine how to align mitigation decisions with funding availability. 
  • Develop training exercises aimed at responding to climate-related crisis events on the railroad.
  • Develop a new tool for analyzing climate adaptation and resilience strategies for freight and passenger rail in order to help the railways better align resources.
  • Create a guide that helps stakeholders determine what type of railway infrastructure provides the most resilience against risk. 

“One major way our specific project [No. 4 on the list] can help various agencies better integrate resiliency measures into their current operations and practices,” said Serena Alexander, associate professor at San Jose State. “We are going to create a database of innovative strategies, technologies and planning tools to address climate impacts on rail infrastructure and freight. Access to relevant information is a major barrier many agencies are facing to plan for climate resilience and our tool will help address that gap.”

Once these research projects are complete, the general public will be able to view them in places such as the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) database and federal websites, according to Philbrick.

The consortium’s research will come at a time when there has been only limited study worldwide on climate resiliency and the rail network. A quick scan of TRB’s global research database shows that only 23 studies related to climate resilience and the railroads have been published since 2013, Philbrick said.

“The main takeaway is that we will always be more effective if we plan in advance for disruptions and events rather than just respond,” Phibrick said. “We saw during the pandemic how important being able to pivot is and how being resilient allowed us to continue to operate under different circumstances. With the supply chain disruptions, [extreme weather events are] causing serious problems. Think about the mothers who can’t get formula to feed their babies. What if those sun kinks cause the derailment of a freight train full of formula?

“I mean, you can put whatever face you want to it, but I think talking about how these events can disrupt the supply chain helps people understand why it’s important to study and how it could impact them negatively if it’s not.”

Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak address climate resiliency and the rails

Outside of the university consortium, others have started to look at climate resiliency and the rail network as well. 

The Federal Railroad Administration is addressing the issue of climate resiliency through grants and work with other federal agencies.

“A whole-of-government approach is necessary to effectively tackle climate change, which is why FRA will continue to strengthen our long-standing relationships with governmental agencies to achieve our climate goals,” FRA said on its website. “By building on existing and creating new public-private partnerships, we will increase engagement with the rail industry sector to collaborate on research and development for passenger and freight rail technology that will keep our planet and communities healthy, while also creating millions of good-paying jobs.”

Amtrak is working on developing a climate resilience strategic plan to address impacts on the Northeast corridor, according to its Aug. 18 report discussing the passenger railroad’s sustainability efforts in 2021.  The railroad finalized a vulnerability assessment of the corridor as it relates to climate change over the past year using input from a strategic planning team, cross-departmental roundtable and interviews with key employees. 

The assessment looked at essential assets, such as the track, buildings and stations, tunnels, substations, catenary systems and signals, and those assets’ exposure and sensitivity to various climate stressors. Those included sea-level rise and storm-level surge, precipitation, temperature and wind. 

“This internal guide is designed to be actionable and puts forth select, priority actions to be implemented over the next three years,” Amtrak said in its report. “Together, with the [vulnerability assessment], Amtrak is actively addressing risk and identifying opportunities to amend existing business processes to prepare for the future.”

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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.