NS employees pull together to fend off historic floodwaters and protect the railroad
Along the western edge of Norfolk Southern’s territory, across Missouri prairie land, the floodwaters came, like a biblical event, inundating roads, houses, businesses – and railroad tracks.
As the waters rose, our Engineering Department forces on the Illinois Division launched into battle mode to protect track and wayside infrastructure from the surging currents. What they accomplished for NS is being recognized by department leaders with accolades like “monumental,” “massive,” and “miraculous.”
From May 22, five days before flooding halted traffic on NS’ S Line between Moberly and Kansas City, to June 16, when the waters dropped enough to restart train service, NS’ maintenance of way and communications and signals crews on the division worked around the clock. They fended off floodwaters, repaired damaged track, and restored key infrastructure to operating condition.
“It’s been a true monumental feat by our team out there,” said John Fleps, AVP maintenance of way and structures. “It’s a testament to the quality of people we have at our company. There’s no situation, no scenario too daunting for us to overcome.”
“It’s been a massive effort, just a lot of hard work and dedication by our folks,” said Mick Ireton, chief engineer C&S. "My hat’s off to the people out there on the ground making it happen.”
Protecting the railroad’s assets
Over more than three weeks, an army of engineering employees and NS contractors loaded and dumped tens of thousands of pounds of rip-rap and boulders to “armor” miles of track and wayside structures to prevent washouts. They brought in boats, prodding the water with sticks to check the condition of flooded track. They fished out damaged rail and crossties and moved them to high ground to rebuild them. In areas under water, they pulled on chest waders to help reconstruct track roadbeds at washouts and lay sections of rebuilt track panels.
To protect wayside assets from rising waters, C&S crews removed expensive electronics from structures housing equipment for signals, detectors, and highway-rail crossing gates and lights – an effort that saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then, when the waters dropped, they returned to reinstall the equipment.
About the only thing they didn’t do was build an ark – but you can believe that they could – and would have – if necessary to support Norfolk Southern’s business interests.
“It’s been pretty miraculous what these employees have done working in historic flooding conditions,” said Ben McElroy, division engineer, Illinois Division, who led efforts on the ground. “They’ve done everything we asked and gone above and beyond their normal duties to get the job done.”
Before cresting, floodwaters submerged about 10 miles of track in the Brunswick, Missouri, area. In a race against time, our track crews, aided by contract equipment operators, armored nearly 40 miles of flood-threatened track with rip-rap. In many locations, NS’ track essentially served as a protective levee.
“We did a lot of prevention the first couple of weeks, dumping rock with rotary dump trucks and moving it around with excavators, bulldozers, everything you could imagine to keep the track and several bridges from being washed away,” McElroy said. “In the areas we were able to do that, we lost very little track.”
Collaboration to get the job done
In total, rushing waters washed out about 3,000 feet of track across more than a dozen locations, scouring holes as deep as 20 to 30 feet. The worst washout undermined a 1,500-foot-long section of track. Work crews hauled in stone from local quarries to armor the track and rebuild roadbeds, including a make-shift quarry that NS opened near the tracks in White Rock after our Sourcing Department negotiated terms with the landowner.
“It was incredibly efficient to source rock there,” Fleps said. The rip-rap was loaded onto off-road dump trucks, transferred to side dump ballast cars, and carried by rail to where it was needed. McElroy gave a shout-out to train and engine crews who ran work trains during the operation, NS roadway mechanics who kept machinery running, and NS carmen who assisted with ballast cars.
“They were right here with us working in some pretty tough conditions,” McElroy said.
Fleps gave kudos to NS engineering’s design and construction group for their assistance. The group used drones to assess flooding and dispatched survey crews to help re-establish track centerlines and the top of rail to ensure roadbeds were rebuilt to proper elevation.
NS hauled in spiker machines, other track equipment, and people from across the Illinois Division and beyond to assist in the effort, including rebuilding track panels. “In the interest of NS’ assets, we tried to rehab the track that we could save,” Fleps said. “We had enough people so we could swap out every 12 hours and work around the clock on all the locations we could get access to.”
More than 70 NS maintenance of way employees were involved at some point in the department’s preventive and recovery efforts, McElroy estimated. Typically, 25 to 30 employees worked day shifts and 15 to 20 worked overnight shifts.
“It’s taken an army of people to keep the railroad intact, and they’ve done amazing work,” Fleps said. “No matter the circumstances, whether it’s weather, topography, or a mainline derailment, we will get through it – we always find a way to get the job done – and get it done safely. It’s something we’re very proud of.”
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