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What the Recent Amtrak Delays Can Teach Other Rail Companies About Crisis Management: Q&A With Alan Hawley

Winter storms pummeled cities across the U.S. last week, disrupting operations for nearly every industry—including transportation.

Following hundreds of drivers being stranded overnight on I-95 in Northern Virginia, passengers on an Amtrak traveling from New Orleans to New York faced their own crisis. After leaving Atlanta early Monday morning, the train was stuck outside of Lynchburg, Virginia for nearly forty hours. Passengers were trapped without food, supplies, and information.

The cause? A winter storm had knocked trees onto the tracks. The train couldn’t pass.

The trip finally resumed around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, but the lingering question remained: Could this situation have been avoided? 

We sat down with Tomorrow.io’s Chief of Growth Alan Hawley, a rail operations expert, to understand how the risk of delays like this one can be mitigated.

Tomorrow.io's Chief of Growth Alan Hawley, a rail operations expert, says companies need to consider weather impact ahead of time.

Can this type of delay be prevented, or are rail companies forced to be reactive in these situations?

I think you can always be more proactive. So one of the things they could have done is to understand that heavily vegetated areas are going to be more impacted by high winds. This would have therefore flagged that as an area of high risk. Now, it’s your choice whether you take that risk on and decide to operate as normal and just be aware of that risk or whether you think the risk is high enough that you decide to be proactive and remove some of these trees rather than to risk what happened, which is delays and people stuck in the train.

We work with energy companies in a similar way because they need to be very aware of trees and limbs coming down. So, for instance, they’ll know that if it’s springtime, or sometime when there’s foliage on the trees and there’s been a frost, then limbs are more brittle. Therefore, when wind speeds get above a certain speed, there’s a higher risk of tree limb damage, or trees falling on tracks, etc.

What can other rail companies take away from this situation?

The biggest takeaway here is understanding risk and not being surprised. Weather happens— and weather is getting more and more unpredictable. The more unpredictable things get, the more prepared companies need to be. Having the knowledge, confidence, and options to make a proactive decision, as opposed to being caught by surprise, is what’s important.

And it’s a bit like a cybersecurity attack because once you’re in the heat of it all, there’s not a lot you can do. Once that train was stuck, it was stuck, right? But if you had known there was a high risk of that train getting stuck, you might have even canceled the train, slowed it down, rerouted it, removed the tree limbs from the route etc. There’s so much you can do.

How could technology have helped in this situation?

What we at Tomorrow.io would have been able to tell them is that these parts of the track are going to be at risk due to high winds in heavily vegetated areas. And given how cold it’s been, these trees, and these tree limbs can be very, very brittle.

Train companies can use weather intelligence to predict risk factors in advance of delays.
Tomorrow.io’s Insights Dashboard provides rail companies with hour-by-hour insights into weather-related risk factors.

So one insight could have been to say we’ve got a high risk here of trees falling onto the track, and then there are a number of options. One might be rerouting the train. Another could be working with local DPW to remove large overhanging limbs at the top of the track and just review the situation. So we’re just giving them options. If you’re aware of something, if you’re knowledgeable about the risk, then you can evaluate your options. If you’re reacting, you’re out of options. And so I think what companies hope to do is understand what the risks are, what the potential impact might be, and be proactive and make the right decisions at the time.

But the whole point is we’re not telling companies the decision to make. But based on their protocols and the decisions that they would typically make, we can highlight areas of risk ahead of time.

When you hear about a crisis like this – what are the biggest risk factors and/or operational losses that first come to mind?

Risk number one is to the people on the train. So were they able to keep power? Were they able to get people off the train? First, let’s keep people safe.

Beyond safety, there are hundreds of other risks and potential losses. The thing about rails is that it’s not like the road, so cars can’t just go around. If that train is stuck, then it completely cuts off that artery. Nothing else can go down it. Most rail lines are single tracks. So that’s obviously a risk. It reroutes the other trains. It could also impact the supply chain if freight rail companies also use that track. So there are a number of knock-on effects.

I’m sure there’s some brand and insurance impacts as well. So there will certainly be financial impacts, and  it’s a knock on the rail industry.

What about for the industry as a whole – would an event like this impact other companies?

Yeah, many people might now say “I’m just going to drive. I don’t want to be stuck in a train.” So there’s a greater message here for the rail network. As a passenger, you’re not in control. You just sit in the back of the train, putting your life in the hands of the company that is operating the track and the network. If they don’t make the right decisions, you could get stuck on a train. People are going to evaluate their options if rail doesn’t seem safe because you can be stranded on a train for over 24 hours.

How has technology advanced crisis management for rail overall?

Rail has many challenges. Crosswind analysis, for example, is huge. Whether it’s freight or passenger rail, the risk of winds to a train is huge. It’s a real big problem if you’re on a track traveling north to south, and you’ve got a wind coming east to west. In that case, a 40 mph wind becomes a 70 mph impact. So that’s a risk that we can help them identify based on the angle of the track, the type of asset, things etc. Then, they decide if they slow down the train or cancel the train.

Tomorrow.io alerts warn rail teams about possible actions to take in advance of serve weather.
Automated alerts let rail operators about impending weather risks and offer suggested actions.

Knowing soil saturation is another one. These trains are so heavy that if you’ve got saturated ground, you’ve got a high risk of ground subsidence, which can lead to a derailment. With saturation, you can also consider landslide risk. And then finally, flood prediction is huge. These trains can aquaplane. So if you’ve got isolated flooding, particularly with urbanization in areas that maybe weren’t a flood risk before, surface runoff could just overload on top of the tracks and that train can derail.

There are so many different weather variables. We’ve built predictive indexes around these riskscrosswind, soil saturation, flood predictionso we can help companies make an informed decision around multiple factors.

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