Railroads’ nervous systems need better insulation

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Railroading is making many technological advancements geared towards safety, efficiency and speed. But what about reliability and resiliency? The causes of delay to my most recent long-distance Amtrak trip suggest a lack of attention to ensuring that passenger and freight trains run reliably in challenging terrain and adverse weather — the latter of which is becoming a more formidable adversary with the increased effects of climate change.

View from Amtrak's westbound Cardinal as it crossed the Greenbrier River just west of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. on May 17. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
I traveled from Washington, D.C. to Albuquerque, N.M. via Chicago using the Cardinal and Southwest Chief. My train 51 of May 17-18 was delayed up to two hours at the longest, but made up all but 45 minutes of that thanks to schedule padding and efficient handling across the train’s labyrinthine routing into the Windy City. An initial delay of 20 to 30 minutes nearly doubled as the Cardinal negotiated the winding ex-C&O main line across the Allegheny summit between Clifton Forge, Va. and White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. 

The conductor, sitting across from me in the lounge car, explained that a restricted speed of 20 mph was in effect on what should be at least 55 mph track because the federally-mandated Positive Train Control system, which was only activated on this route in the past six months and relies on satellite-based Global Positioning Systems to locate each train, was unable to communicate with the computer in the locomotive cab through the mountains, even in fair weather. With the collision and overspeed prevention system essentially inoperative, the train had to proceed as if the signals were down. 

The conductor lamented that this is a regular occurrence on this stretch of the line. Granted, PTC technology is still in its infancy, and the use of GPS to locate trains is necessary where installing line-side communication wiring (which the version of PTC that Amtrak employs on the Northeast Corridor uses) is impractical. Nonetheless, the system should be able to function in normal operating circumstances across the multitude of landscape types that railroads traverse.

Speaking of line-side wiring, the next delay to the Cardinal’s westward journey occurred about three hours later, when a heavy dusk-time thunderstorm blew through as we negotiated the northwest end of the New River Gorge, bringing heavy rains and high winds. As the conductor anticipated, debris blown onto the track impeded our progress. Later on down the line, as I have experienced before, the ground’s saturation after two lines of thunderstorms across the Midwest impacted the signal system, which relies on buried wires that connect each signal box to the others and to the dispatch center. In accordance with the rules, this caused our train to operate 45 mph under track speed on several stretches.

A wet afternoon in Chicago as the yard serving Amtrak's national and regional hub, seen from a 73-minute-late departing Southwest Chief, is debilitated by weather-caused signal problems on May 18.
Similar problems affected my connection in Chicago the next day. Though the weather there was sunny and warm (at least until another line of storms rolled in just before 2 P.M.), the previous evening’s thunderstorms wreaked havoc on the signal communication lines for Amtrak’s Chicago dispatch center, which controls the terminal trackage at Union Station and the Michigan Line. This meant that each train in and out of Union Station, both Amtrak and Metra, had to wait its turn to be guided between the station and yard by radio over a single track. This delayed most Amtrak departures up to 90 minutes. My train 3 was 73 minutes down out of the gate. 

Despite BNSF dispatchers kindly hustling no. 3 past a line of east- and westbound BNSF freights between Naperville and Galesburg, Ill., we lost another 90 minutes through Fort Madison, Iowa, including a lengthy wait for backed-up freight trains to clear the single-track bridge crossing the Mississippi River. The Chief was three hours late leaving La Plata, Mo. and was unable to recover most of that time, reaching Albuquerque the next day 2.5 hours tardy and Los Angeles the day after just over three hours down.

I’ve never fully understood why signal problems following rainstorms — the kind that are commonplace in most places east of the Rockies — are such a persistent bugaboo. I am not technically proficient enough to know what could be done to keep ground saturation from affecting signal cables. But heavy rains and flooding are becoming even more frequent in much of the country, along with high winds, hail, tornadoes and hurricanes. Railroad maintenance managers and engineering/technical professionals should be devoting more time and resources to insulating the components that make up railroads’ ‘nervous systems.’ In the 21st century, it seems ridiculous that mere water and wind, and the interference of mountains with satellite signals, would cripple the flow of train traffic on some of the nation’s busiest and best-maintained main lines.

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