• The Next "Big One"

  • General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.
General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.

Moderator: Robert Paniagua

  by 2nd trick op
No, gentlemen, I'm not speaking of earthquakes .... or hurricanes. I'm speculating on the next major natural upheaval (most likely a flood) that seriously disrupts a large portion of the entire rail network.

It has happened before ... most recently in 1994 when flooding in the Upper Mississippi Valley knocked out several major main lines, with BNSF's Transcon in central Missoui probably the most severe single casualty. According to coverage in Trains and the trade press, that series of washouts spawned re-routing that involved alternative routes from Minnesota to St. Louis . And one wonders how a disturbance of the magnitude of the Lower Mississippi floods of 1927 would affect things today.

Some of us can remember a time when the railroads co-operated more, and when more alternatives existed .... rougly up to the time of the Hurricane Agnes floods of 1972, which doomd LV and E-L and hastened the birth of Conrail And the Johnstown (Pa.) flooding in 1977 knocked out a former PRR main that still had at least three, and sometimes four tracks, But in those times the Water Level Route was in the same corporate hands.

When PRR's Congressional derailed at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia in 1943, first hand accounts of the incdent tell of reroutings via B&O and Reading underway within twelve hours. And Pennsy itself had the electrified Trenton Cutoff as an alterate route.

But that sort of adaptability no longer exists today; and while our daily existence probably wouldn't be as quickly or readily affected, the potential for longer-lasting disruptions, or corrective actions which would have to be spread over a greater, and more congested area, seems to be increasing.

Sooner or later, it seems likely to happen. And the only bright side to this that I can see is that the media's increased capability for quick and up-to-date reporting will enable we of the railfan fraternty to get into the field sooner.

If we can cut through the hype generated by the likes of the Weather Channel. And if the local Keystone Cops don't suspect us of terrorism.
Last edited by 2nd trick op on Thu Sep 16, 2010 9:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  by Ocala Mike
You raise some interesting issues and, without venturing into politics, I wonder if these concerns are being addressed by some of our governmental agencies (DOT, FEMA, Homeland Security, etc.). Seems like we should have some plans extant regarding being prepared for something like a national or regional rail system shutdown caused either by natural events or terrorist activity. Not one to advocate any nationalizing of our transportation system, but I do believe that we should be prepared for any eventuality, and I wonder to what extent the individual railroads have any emergency plans in place.
  by justalurker66
I'm sure the responsible planners working for agencies that cannot be named (or perhaps can) have spent an appropriate amount of time doing the due diligence to prevent the "big one" from being a human generated event ... so the thought turns to things they cannot control. The typical flood/fire/tornado/hurricane/earthquake/volcano/etc. natural disaster or accident. These planners are hired, not elected, so politics plays little role in their work.

As far as I know there are no strategic rail reserves. If a line is disrupted it will be up to the railroads themselves to figure out a new temporary routing and repair. Congress will do what it does best (regardless of administration) and throw money at the problem. What that emergency route will be probably could be guessed based on previous reroutings. In some areas line closures and consolidations may make an emergency route impossible or impractical ... but most likely the route will just be annoying. Railroads will do their best to get the freight through as they always have in such situations.

The weak link on the alternate routes: qualified rail crews. With past derailments the alternate route fills up fast and the lack of crews qualified for the alternate could be the limiting factor.

If it becomes a matter for "national security" expect critical trains to make it through and less critical trains to be parked. Coal will somehow make it from the mines to generating stations. Perishables will make it across the country to stores (or we'll choose other foods). But in a major disruption the UPS train bringing your latest toy from California may be delayed.

We have an interstate highway system that can handle loads that are not required to move by train ... and the last I checked drivers did not have to be qualified to drive on a different interstate than the ones they normally drive. If the disruption is major enough we could run out of drivers.

But we've had a lot of "big ones" that were expertly handled with minimal disruption. I can't imagine an incident that wouldn't be handled the same way.

As far as man made incidents ... if terrorists do attack our rail infrastructure (as they have in other countries) our fear of the next attack may be more crippling that the actual attack. Most people trust that the railroads are being operated and watched over by experts ... if that protection fails we may see increases in security that will not be pleasant to rail fans. (Although most railfans would probably be more concerned for their railroads than for their hobby.)
  by ExCon90
Justalurker pretty well covered it. Railroads have traditionally responded quickly to establish detour routes on the principle that "what just happened to you could happen to me tomorrow." I have been in dispatchers' offices that had large blueprinted diagrams on the wall showing the entire territory covered, together with every possible detour route around any obstruction, as well as the phone number to call for permission to use it (and this in the days of rotary-dial telephones). They even had prior arrangements for what to charge each other. There's no reason to suppose that railroads are not equally prepared today, subject to the major constraints of fewer available detour routes and the probable difficulty of finding qualified and rested crews.
  by Robert Paniagua
And let's not forget solar "geomagnetic" storms that could actually disrupt railways too
  by 2nd trick op
Thanks for the observations, gentlemen. While I'm in agreement as to the ability ofthe system to keep things going over the short/intermdiate term, I think it's worth noting that the combination of increased traffic and a reduced number of both alternate routes and the capacity of those routes could generate a "multiplier effect", as with the example of a string that vibrates longer when stretched taut. And it has been over fifteen years since the last major test of this possibility was faced/demonstrated.

To me, this serves as one more reason why the remaining major roads would, over the long run, benefit by co-operation with their regional and short-line bretheren in soliciting more traffic "on the fringes" of the current "conventional" carload market, possibly even to the point of allowing a limited form of "open access". The capacity (or at least, the potential to revivie it) is there in many cases; the problem appears to be one of developing incentives with sufficient promise for all the parties involved.
  by justalurker66
Carload has to be the biggest pain for a major railroad. They want to run trains, not switching operations. Their favorite trains bypass the classification yards and run from a source to a destination. An increase in rail traffic isn't a bad idea - increased traffic may encourage the railroads to rebuild alternate routes ... including adding double track to single track routes to increase capacity (and provide more backup capacity for the topic of this thread).

I don't know how big the next big one needs to be to qualify as a "the big one" ... we have a lot of big ones all of the time ... days without rail service in one corridor or another due to a derailment or weather/damages. The railroads seem to handle those just fine. The "big one" could be anything as trivial as a bridge that won't close or a washout of a key line ... it hasn't been 15 years since one of those events.