Winter weather creating specific challenges for railway operations

A CN Rail train slowly makes its way through ice-laden trees. Facebook/Vicky Hachey

Just days after a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed in south Edmonton, the Canadian National Railway is addressing some of the major challenges of operating in winter weather.

Persistent cold weather can impact operations, which means the railways must run shorter trains to ensure safety. However, the same amount of product needs to be transferred.

“That means more trains are needed to move the same volume of freight,” explained Dave Przednowek, director of grain marketing for CN. “It might be a two-week stretch of extreme cold weather, then you get a break for a couple days and you’re right back into the deep freeze.

“It’s been hard to recover with the significant volume of traffic that wants to move on the network when the cold weather hasn’t really let up for us.”

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Przednowek discussed the challenges of winter railway operations on the Alberta Morning News. He said that on average, three out of every four days this winter have required shorter trains.

Shorter trains transporting the same amount of product means CN needs to actively recruit conductors and staff, and have more trains at their disposal.

“Between crewing, additional locomotives, as well as an aggressive capital program for 2018 — it’s pretty unprecedented, historically high,” Przednowek said. “We’re going to end up spending about $3.2 billion in total in 2018.”

From October to the end of 2017, CN Rail trained and deployed 250 conductors. They plan to add another 400 in the next year to keep up with rising demands and more trains hitting the rails.

“That’s a capital program that’s really focused on key capacity projects, really focused on growing overall network capacity,” Przednowek said.

“Particularly in the western region, to meet what continued to be a strong growing economy, and adding capacity to meet that demand.”

The higher number of trains is necessary to meet rising demands, particularly in the western provinces, but the volume increase comes with its own challenges.

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Przednowek explained that because more trains are running on the same tracks, congestion can become an issue.

“The key focus needs to be on keeping the main line open,” he said. “And then what happens along that is as you push out away from the main line into your branch line, into other areas. That’s where your congestion really starts to begin. So the key is always going to be keeping the main line open.”

To combat the issue, CN will also be focusing on expanding their network through programs such as double tracking.

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