Mitigating the Rail Disruptions caused by Natural Disasters

Rail transportation is often considered a critical infrastructure since a disruption in one of its components can have a significant impact on the economic and social welfare of a region. An effective way to assess how critical an infrastructure is would be to consider the impacts its removal would have on the flows and activities it services. From an economic standpoint, the impacts of disasters are dependent on three factors; 1) the nature and level of incidence of disasters; 2) the level of exposure of populations and infrastructures and; 3) the level of vulnerability of populations and infrastructures.

The impact of the recent hurricanes and suspended rail services has resulted in:

  • Spike in the spot rates
  • Capacity tightened as trucking companies allocated resources to assist in relief efforts
  • Long-term disruptions are driving fuel prices higher in the weeks ahead
  • Productivity could decrease due to out-of-cycle supply chain demands
  • Closures of regional shipping terminals and ports

Recent flooding in the Texas and Florida area caused by tropical Storm Harvey and Irma has caused major disruptions to all the rail operations and services in the region. The region has experienced days of heavy rains, strong winds and catastrophic flooding since the hurricane made landfall.

Freight, commuter, and subway lines are subject to infrastructure failures due to weakening joints, erosion, and unstable rails that can cause train car collisions and derailment. The functioning of rail lines is also vulnerable to disruption due to power failures. Subway breakdowns, while not frequent, can occur because of aging machinery. The rail operators need to prepare for these weather events by moving cars to secure locations. Extreme temperature changes can also affect railroad tracks, causing the steel to shrink during extremely cold weather and buckle during extreme heat events, which could cause train derailments.

To address the concerns, rail suppliers can call on to the contractors to rebuild track washed away during a flood or clear downed trees and other debris from lines. They also are needed to repair derailed rail cars and get them back on track. The challenges contractors have overcome the past several years ranged from finding a way to access the site, to housing and feeding workers on a job, to keeping lines of communication open when phone service and power is unavailable.

Although a potential disaster can never be effectively planned, or even anticipated in some instances, there are a series of steps to reduce disruptions which could be implemented by rail operators and maintenance teams, known as Disasters Risk Management.

  • Risk Assessment: The likelihood of an event and its potential impacts should be comprehensively assessed, such as low to high probability over a defined time frame and over a specific area (e.g. a city). This should provide a prioritization of risks, but it remains a very uncertain process.
  • Preparedness: Considering the potential risks a level of preparedness should be considered in terms of potential responses. This can involve the warehousing and positioning of relief material, such as fuel, parts and equipment, and the training of the maintenance teams in emergency situations.
  • Response: Once the disaster has been mitigated, the recovery sets in and rail operators should implement to bring back capacity with existing infrastructure. If a mode has been impaired, the usage of alternative modes and infrastructure must be considered. The goal is to maintain operational as many elements of the transport system as possible.
  • Recovery: The rail operators take all the steps necessary to recover the transport capacity that was lost during the disaster. It involves repairs, the restarting services that were discontinued as well as investments in new and improved infrastructures, modes and terminals. The goal is to bring back the capacity and level of service to pre-disaster conditions. With the lessons learned from the disaster, more resilient infrastructure and networks are a likely outcome.

As transportation is often considered a critical infrastructure, it Is important for rail operators to assess the economic and social impact of the disaster on the welfare of a region. Based on the assessment, rail operators must effectively implement mitigating and recovery strategies to get the assets back in the operational stages.

One of the core aspects of mitigating rail transportation disasters concerns the flexibility of transport systems, that is having infrastructures and modes able to withstand and recover from natural hazards. Achieving a level of resilience implies a combination of redundancy or flexibility. Redundancy involves a level of duplication of assets, let them be paths to connect location or additional inventory within supply chains. Flexibility concerns the capacity to find alternatives such as new routes, new terminals or new suppliers. The following strategies can help mitigate unforeseen disruptions:

  • Monitoring and assessment: In any unusual emergency situation information is crucial. If properly informed, consumers and rail operators tend to act rationally, which may lessen additional disruptions, damage and even loss of life. Depending on the risk factors involved, rail operators should fundamentally monitor the situation and assess which parts of the system can be brought partially or completely online as soon as possible.
  • Devising alternative strategy: For short commute, the rail operators should devise short-term alternatives than having to commute to a location that is now difficult of access. This can involve telecommuting strategies, the postponement of non-essential work tasks or the setting of alternative work locations. Rail operators should setup and implement Emergency Management Systems to address different components including infrastructure, technology, organizational, management or human resources. They coordinate with the incident alarm dispatching and monitoring systems, which include information about the railway network to help railway companies’ staff to develop emergency coordination tasks in a more efficient manner.
  • Modal shift: Ideally, movements of passengers or freight should shift towards modes that have a higher capacity and resiliency. It can take several days to be brought back online. This exacerbates congestion and may even lead to fuel shortages. The alternative modes must react quickly by adding as much capacity as possible, which may take place more effectively if those contingencies are planned. For freight, modal shifts over long distances is a possible strategy. For short distances, such as deliveries or terminal hauling, modal shift is less likely since there are limited alternatives. Therefore, deliveries need to be postponed, consolidated and prioritized.