87th AMS Annual Meeting

Tuesday, 16 January 2007: 1:45 PM
Analysis of Weather Events on U.S. Railroads
216AB (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Michael A. Rossetti, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, Cambridge, MA
Poster PDF (97.2 kB)
Weather conditions exert a major influence on U.S. railroads. These conditions may affect operating efficiency, physical infrastructure, and the safe passage of freight and people. Railroad companies operate within a variety of meteorological conditions, some of which are particularly problematic for rail transportation. These also have significant seasonal and time-of-day components. Precipitation and fog lead to decreased visibility of signals, flash floods can wash out tracks, and excessive heat can warp tracks. Crosswinds can reduce stability or lead to blow-over of railcars. Snow and ice may cause regional delays or shutdowns.

Despite the growing availability and sophistication of weather information, adverse weather conditions continue to cause problems for operators. Weather phenomena present many real-time and forecast problems that challenge the abilities of railroad operators and crews, to confront, recover from, avoid and communicate specific weather hazards. Some hazards tend to impact specific railroad segments or geographic areas, while others present more general exposure problems. Accordingly, reducing meteorological effects on the railroad system have potential benefits in terms of saved resources, injuries and lives realizable from use of weather information to support railroad decision-making.

This analysis examines records from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Railroad Accident and Incident Reporting System (RAIRS) database for the period 1995-2005. The RAIRS exists to provide the FRA with accurate information concerning the hazards and risks that exist on the Nation's railroads. The database is comprised of 356 unique cause codes, of which over 70 are track-related. For a variety of reasons, RAIRS statistics tend to understate or obscure the true impact of weather as a causal factor in railroad incidents and accidents. Moreover, unless a reportable incident or accident occurs that results in system delays or outages, RAIRS data provide little information on how weather events such as winter storms or major floods may result in service interruptions or shutdowns of rail infrastructure.

The analysis presents a method for examining RAIRS fields to provide a more accurate representation of weather and environmental conditions on these events. Results are used against fields such as fatalities, injuries, economic damage, hazardous materials and other measures of risk. It discusses ways to incorporate other information to assess how weather influences on railroad operations and safety, and the response of railroad companies to an actual or imminent event. The analysis looks at the addressability of weather incidents by present and emerging technologies. It also makes recommendations for improving existing data systems to more accurately reflect the influence of weather, including its potential utilization in surface transportation observing systems such as the Federal Highway Administration's Clarus initiative.

Supplementary URL: