Hyperlocal weather data helps keep rails ice-free and costs down

By | 3 minute read | November 19, 2019

Depending on their length and load, freight trains can weigh thousands of tons. Few things can stop them, certainly not a few inches of rain. But as anyone in rail operations will tell you, all bets are off when that precipitation—even a relatively small amount—freezes.

That’s because when it comes to running on time, frozen precipitation represents the Achilles heel of train operations. The reason is simple—frozen precipitation can jam up switches, making it impossible to change or “throw” them. When that happens, trains often have to stop and wait until the switch is cleared before they can proceed.

A more flexible way to plan travel

To mitigate this problem, railroads like Norfolk Southern use propane switch heaters, or melters, to keep of rails warm enough to prevent freeze ups. Each of them uses as much propane per hour as heating an average-sized house for 24 hours in northern Alaska during the winter.

Given the stakes, rail operations personnel don’t take any chances when there’s a threat of frozen precipitation. Their primary job is dispatching. So when threatening winter weather arrives, the usual—and safest—practice is to simply activate all the melters in a given area and turn them off a few days after the storm has left. With some 4,500 melters spread across 1,500 locations, that’s a lot of propane, and the costs mount quickly.

Sharing travel data to drive innovation

As Director of Transportation Application Planning at Norfolk Southern, my role is to bridge the gap between our technology organization and the operations side. It was in that capacity that our engineering department reached out to me for assistance in coming up with a more efficient way to manage our melters.

That led to a lot of research, trial and error and ultimately a successful proof of concept that showed we could tie weather forecasts into a way to automate the process. The missing link in the equation was weather data that was not only accurate, but also hyper-localized and up-to-the-minute.

New services mean happy travelers

The data we got when we subscribed to The Weather Company Data Packages, an IBM service delivered from IBM Cloud, has exceeded our most optimistic expectations. It’s become the bedrock of a new system we developed that has enabled us to automate, at a very granular level, when melters are turned on and off. Each of the 1,500 locations where we have switches is considered distinct from a GPS perspective.

An application run by our internal GIS (geographic information systems) Group makes calls to weather data APIs to bring back current conditions for each location that are refreshed every 15 minutes, including the critical variable of snow depth. That data is then run through a complex event processor that uses rules to determine which heaters to switch on and which to switch off, and it’s all executed automatically in the field. From the time we get the weather data to the time the melter is turned on or off is a few seconds.

A good way to envision this solution in action is to see it from the dispatcher’s viewpoint. Before, when a storm moved from west to east across our territory, dispatchers would turn on all the melters because they’re focused on dispatching, not storm watching. With the new system, dispatchers don’t do anything but move trains, which is a huge job unto itself. What they see in the control room is a progression of melters going on one by one, and occasionally in mass, in a pattern that perfectly mirrors when and where the frozen precipitation is moving through, and going off when the weather has passed. If significant accumulation has occurred, snow melting may continue.

The benefits of leadership

By shifting to a more precise, predictive and data-driven decision-making process, we’ve been able to reduce our switch heating costs—and the associated carbon emissions—by 70 percent.

But perhaps the biggest transformation is on the process side of the equation. Today, our dispatchers are focused completely on the core tasks of operating the railroad—and there are plenty of them. Ultimately, increased dispatcher focus leads us to running our trains more safely, efficiently and on time. All of which means better customer service.

Watch Dan Plonk talk about what smarter transportation means for Norfolk Southern: