Railroads slowly getting back on track after Midwest floods

  (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Historic flooding that began on March 15 has wiped out miles of roads and bridges along the Missouri River, especially from eastern Nebraska to western Iowa. Omaha was the largest city to be hit. This part of the country isn’t a big player when it comes to freight movement by truck, but at least two major rail companies in the region now have several subdivisions that have been put out of commission by floodwaters. They’re doing the best they can to get things back on track.

BNSF Railway Company, owned by Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK), is the largest freight railroad network in North America. Its rail network consists of 32,500 route miles running through 28 states – including several states that were flooded – as well as three Canadian provinces. In 2017, BNSF hauled 1.1 million carloads of agricultural commodities, and moved enough grain to supply 900 million people with a year’s supply of bread.

Many farms were destroyed by the floods, and Nebraska and Iowa are two of the largest producers of grains and corn in the U.S. It’s important to get these trains moving again. The latest estimates of damage to crops and cattle in the two states is nearly $1 billion.

BSSF issued an updated customer letter on March 25 in which it states that crews are “conducting ongoing assessments and inspections regarding the condition of our main lines.” Additional resources, including ballast, are on their way to affected locations to make track repairs as soon as possible. While service on some subdivisions has already been restored, with speed restrictions in place where necessary, normal train flows in the area are not likely to resume for quite some time. BNSF has created a Midwest flooding recovery web page to provide specific information and resources regarding this event, and the company has posted several embargoes in response to track outages in Iowa.

The Union Pacific Railroad (NYSE: UNP) is also making progress. On March 21, the company announced the reopening of two of its subdivisions that were damaged by the flood – the Blair (Fremont, Nebraska, to Missouri Valley, Iowa, via Blair), and the Omaha (Missouri Valley, Iowa, to Fremont, Nebraska, via Omaha).

 Union Pacific track status as of March 26, 2019.
Union Pacific track status as of March 26, 2019.

Company officials stated that “while there is still work to be done in the affected areas, over the past few days our Maintenance of Way teams have made significant progress restoring service to areas impacted by flooding.”

The Columbus (Fremont to Grand Island, Nebraska), Lincoln (Valley to Lincoln, Nebraska) and Falls City (Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Kansas City, Kansas) subdivisions remain out of service. Union Pacific officials say they will continue to reroute traffic, where possible, around the affected areas. Customers with rerouted shipments may experience an additional 72 to 96 hours of transit time.

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Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also 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 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” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.

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