When you’re already battling historic floods on several rivers at once, any new rain surely pours. That’s the scenario railroads faced last week when a new set of storms swept away some hard-won gains against swollen rivers in the Great Plains.
It poured, leaving some areas facing flood disruptions for weeks. It also put new strains on waterlogged levies that were barely holding on. Some no longer could.
Along the Missouri River at Rulo, Neb., BNSF Railway already had raised 3.4 miles of track in its St. Joseph, Mo., subdivision by as much as 20 inches to keep that section above the flood line.
But BNSF had to tell customers, “The subdivision is now out of service, due to flooding near Rulo as a result of a levee break.” It was just another area around which railroads were detouring cross-country traffic to keep shipments moving after weeks of weather delays in various parts of the rail network.
It wasn’t just the Missouri, though that was bad enough. Union Pacific Railroad struggled earlier in June against the Platte River in Nebraska, with high waters threatening to close off an east-west mainline that leads to the giant North Platte railyard. UP won that fight, but it was tough.
“Our crews have performed herculean work,” UP spokesman Tom Lange said. That effort included building large earthen bulwarks known as berms, which resemble levees, near vulnerable track areas.
UP crews, like those at BNSF, also re-engineered and rebuilt miles of track and sometimes bridges to raise them enough that trains could keep moving as long as floods stayed at or below projected levels.
That meant removing rails, crossties and underneath connectors, building up the track bed with ballast rock and other material and reinstalling the tracks. Major railroads have large track-building machines to do that work, but it requires special crews and extra cost.
UP raised tracks “anywhere from 5 inches in the Jefferson City, Mo., area to 5 feet in Missouri Valley, Iowa,” Lange said. “This type of work is ongoing in numerous locations across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, and we continue to monitor all areas of our rail operations impacted by the flood.” Some bridges were raised as much as 19 inches with hydraulic jacks, work that also requires rebuilding the approaches.
Besides its work at Rulo, BNSF raised four miles of track by up to 5 feet between Pacific Junction, Iowa, and Oreapolis, Neb., raised track on three bridges, built levees along both sides of the track “and armored portions of the roadbed with rip rap (boulder-size rock).”
In North Dakota, the Souris River flooded after unusually heavy rains, swamping the city of Minot and disrupting another section of BNSF track. Canadian Pacific Railway reported track outages in North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan, where it expected to lose service for up to 10 days.
Farther west near Slave Lake, Alberta, Canadian National Railway faced repairs to several track washouts, while CN already had lost access to its railyards at Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb., because of Missouri River flooding.
The floods are disrupting plenty of businesses in reach of high water, knocking out some shippers for days or potentially weeks, while forcing truckers to detour around closed routes, including parts of north-south Interstate 29. That was increasing costs for truckers using extra diesel fuel.
The Missouri’s latest rise also was too much for a berm protecting the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, a power plant about 20 miles north of Omaha. The berm gave way on June 26, triggering concerns the floodwaters would knock out the plant’s own electrical cooling system. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the plant was safe and had no floodwater inside.
All of this began when huge winter snowpacks began to melt this spring. That runoff and rainstorms filled upstream Missouri River reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas until the Army Corps of Engineers had to release enough water to flood areas downstream.
Flood predictions have been up and down for weeks. UP halted inbound loads to St. Joseph north of Kansas City based on predictions for more flooding, only to lift the embargo when the river didn’t rise as fast as expected.
Then came the late-June rains and more releases from upstream dams. UP embargoed St. Joseph traffic again, this time in both directions. It also warned customers about concerns for floods to interrupt traffic between Atchison and Leavenworth, Kan., and from Kansas City to Jefferson City, Mo.
And when railroads and activist shippers, who want to rein in their market power, converged for two days of hearings June 22-23 at the Surface Transportation Board, the Midwest river crisis even affected the lineup.
UP Chairman, President and CEO James R. Young appeared but apologized for the absence of Lance Fritz, executive vice president for operations. Young said Fritz was needed back at UP’s Omaha headquarters to keep fighting the flood.