Taped to the door of the conference room are pictures of the problem: a Montana road with snow piled so high it won't melt for months; a McDonald's restaurant in Iowa surrounded by a wall of sandbags; a stretch of railroad tracks submerged in water.
It's not that any of the people gathered around the table inside would forget.
After all, they've been working on this thing for weeks, at times around the clock. When you've got to keep trains — and their cargo of the coal, crops and consumer goods that fuel the economy — rolling across thousands of miles of track and the floodwaters are rising, you don't just sit back and wait.
Over the past six weeks, Union Pacific Railroad crews have been working up and down the Missouri River, raising the level of eight bridges and 63 miles of track. For those projects, workers have dumped more than 400,000 tons of rock — enough to fill 4,100 rail cars — and raised or removed track signals in danger of being damaged. Other railroad employees have been monitoring the situation from the sky, with regular flights to check out track conditions. Dispatchers have kept train engineers posted on one set of route changes after another.
And in the small room inside Union Pacific's downtown Omaha headquarters, the people around the table are looking at charts on their laptops and taking calls from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The walls are covered with maps and graphs that show the elevation of railroad tracks and the projections for where the water is going. It's a bit quieter now than it was a few weeks ago, but until the floodwaters recede, the work is far from over.
“It's about using all of the information you can to help make a rational and good business decision on how to get resources together,” said Mark Davis, a U.P. spokesman. “And to minimize, if you can, the impact of the natural service interruption.”
Responding to natural disasters of all kinds — severe storms, tornadoes, floods, mudslides — is a big part of running a railroad.
Crews responsible for regular maintenance are often called upon to fix tracks or signals damaged by violent weather. Some situations, like the floods that swept through eastern Iowa in 2008 and the mudslide that wiped out a stretch of track running through Oregon's Cascades Mountains in the same year, are a bit more complicated. The flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in 1993 took out massive sections of U.P.'s system for months.
In the case of this year's flooding, the planning began in mid-May, when forecasters began talking about the heavy northern snowpack and the likelihood that it could result in flooding downstream.
With the forecast in hand, U.P. engineers went to work. They surveyed the tracks that run near the river and enlisted the help of hydrologists to calculate how much water it would take to put the lines out of service.
“Our bridges, our culverts, our track structures are more than adequate to handle these types of events,” said Todd Wimmer, U.P.'s assistant vice president of structures. “But with this particular event, we were more concerned about the extent that the water is going to migrate out of the riverbanks.”
By June 1, most of the rail lines were still dry, but there was one place where floodwaters posed a particular threat: North Platte, Neb.
The city is a major hub for U.P., with 150 trains passing through each day and the largest freight classification yard in the world. When water breeched a dike near a railroad bridge east of town, railroad crews began fortifying the area with sandbags dropped from National Guard helicopters.
It became a round-the-clock effort, significant enough to prompt U.P. to start up a command center for flood operations: the Omaha conference room with a banner reading “FLOOD DESK” tacked to the wall.
From there, with the help of information gathered in the field, the railroad began directing crews to raise track in likely flooding hot spots, like Missouri Valley, Iowa.
The process involves lifting the railroad ties and track off the ballast — rock — they sit on, dumping more rock, smoothing it out and then repeating the steps. Depending on the flooding threat, tracks have been raised anywhere from six inches to more than four feet. On average, Wimmer said, tracks have been raised by about 18 inches.
Meanwhile, back in the flood operations room, there were more pieces of the puzzle to assemble.
While tracks were being raised, trains needed to be rerouted and customers alerted to possible delays. Calculations had to be made about how much rock would be required for the track work — and how it could get to where it needed to go.
In some cases, U.P. looked to other railroads. In the Missouri Valley area, for example, traffic was briefly rerouted onto Iowa Interstate Railroad tracks.
Davis said all customers in the area were advised early on that they should expect 24- to 48-hour delays. For the most part, that has been the extent of the slowdown, although a complete embargo was placed on trains moving in the St. Joseph, Mo., area.
And from the start, it looked as if the railroad's Falls City, Neb., subdivision, which runs from Nebraska City to the Kansas City area, might be a lost cause — particularly between Atchison, Kan., and Kansas City.
Wimmer said the railroad raised some track in the lowest spots along that line to delay a complete shutdown but didn't expect it to be a permanent fix.
“We never felt that we were going to be able to keep it open indefinitely,” he said.
That stretch of track went underwater last week. Once the water level drops and crews can get in to assess the damage, Wimmer said, it will probably take only a day or two to get trains running again. But at this point, no one is sure when that might happen.
At the height of the flood preparations, a couple of weeks ago, there were a dozen people working on U.P.'s flood desk at all hours of the day.
With most of the major projects taken care of, that has dropped to five or six people and 17-hour days. Outside of the flood work, the people working on the effort have a variety of roles with the company. Some, for example, make maps or monitor information related to railroad facilities.
The flood has created additional work for others at U.P., too, including the customer care representatives who keep in touch with customers by phone and on the Web, and track maintenance workers, including some called in to help from other parts of the country.
Keith Walter, U.P.'s engineering facility management system director, said the focus now is on keeping track of the work that has already been done and making adjustments where necessary.
“We're monitoring the flood level to figure out when we can get back in,” he said.
For now, at least, this flood doesn't look like the one in 1993.
Wimmer said part of the reason for the difference is that the two floods had different causes: sudden rainfall, versus rain plus snow accumulation and the release of water over time.
But equally important was the work that had already been done; in 1993 and again in other years when flooding occurred, the railroad raised track and communities built levees.
Good planning then and now, Wimmer said, has made a big difference.
“At the end of the day, we're all going through this together, and there's a lot of risk involved for everybody,” he said. “But if level heads prevail, the better off we'll all be.”
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