SWELLED BY MELTING SNOW AND SPRING RAINS, northern portions of the Mississippi River jumped their banks in April of this year, causing up to a foot of flood waters to engulf Burlington Northern Santa Fe's (BNSE's) rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Wind gusts hurled debris along the route as well.
The railroad was at the brink of embargoing the line, but instead the company was able to turn to the weather preparedness plan that it had formalized a few years before to keep on track. The plan provided a framework for action, setting up a mechanism for the railroad's service interruption desk to contact other railroads, such as the Wisconsin Central and Union Pacific, to help with rerouting.
Similarly, the railroad had met with union leaders and employees as a part of its contingency planning process. These groups had already agreed to waive certain work rules (which, for example, enabled workers to operate interdivisionally) to help maintain service during a disaster. As a result of the advance work, the union workers readily pitched in to help combat the problems created by the flooding. Having the union on board was critical.
When early reports of the impending disaster first flowed forth about a week before the deluge, BNSF had, per its plan, executed a rerouting arrangement with other railroads. In addition, having already made the necessary contacts and arrangements--which were included in the plan--the railroad was able to quickly bring in specialists from around the system: dispatchers; crew callers; employees from the train, yard, and engine department; and representatives from maintenance of way, signal, telecomm, and mechanical departments--to keep the trains running.
BNSF's weather-preparedness plan had also identified the most vulnerable locations as well as those that were critical to get back online first. Staff went to these areas to protect siding switches and other electronic devices from rising waters, as well as to operate critical switches.
The railroad fought mightily against the deluge. As described in a company newsletter, "Work trains...dumped hundreds of cars of boulder-size rip-rap [broken stone used to reinforce embankments] into the water along the track 24 hours a day, for days on end, in an effort to shore up the road bed."
As a result of all these preparations, train service, though interrupted, never ceased. Within hours of the flooding, BNSF was able to resume some service even on the flooded line. During the height of the flood, as many as 24 trains per day (out of a typical 36 or so) were able to pass through the affected areas, allowing BNSF to meet its customer commitments.
The weather-preparedness plan that helped BNSF stay afloat consists of a master plan that is a sort of template. Each corporate division then modifies the template to fit its circumstances. How the plan was developed and how it works can serve as a model for any company looking to weatherproof its operations. (As mandated by federal law, the railroad also maintains a Passenger Train Emergency Preparedness Plan for every passenger train operation on BNSF property, including Amtrak, Metrolink, and Trinity Railway Express, but that plan will not be addressed in this article.)
HEADQUARTERED IN FORT WORTH, Texas, BNSF operates a vast network of railways that span more than 33,000 route miles covering 28 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Its 5,000 locomotives and 200,000 freight cars carry primarily coal, grain, chemicals, metals, minerals, forest products, automobiles, and consumer goods.
The distribution of these vast shipments of rolling stock is directed and coordinated from the network operations center (NOC) at headquarters, operated by 900 of the company's 40,000 employees. In the main area of the center, a 45,000-square-foot, fan-shaped room contains nine 18-by-24-foot screens, two of which are devoted to routewide weather condition forecasts and updates. …