Manager's Forum: Facing Extreme Weather

Calgary, Alberta
Living and moving customers in a winter city like Calgary means always being prepared for any eventuality. Given the city’s close proximity to the Rocky Mountains, Calgary experiences significant temperature swings in the form of “Chinooks” which can moderate temperatures as much as 30 degrees within a couple of hours. On Calgary’s light rail transit, called the CTrain, light rail vehicles are well designed for cold conditions. It is not unusual for the city to experience freak weather at any time of year. Calgary Transit has a severe weather program that kicks into action and weather forecasts are closely monitored 12 months a year.

Most trains are stored indoors but some are stored outside because of indoor storage space constraints. For trains that are stored outside, the pantograph is connected which allows Calgary Transit to run auxiliary heaters for the interior.

Also, the power allows the traction container and other vital electronics to be under current. This generates enough warmth to facilitate the needed functionality of the components. For the most part, the mechanical components have to brave the cold, hence in severe conditions the startup is sluggish until these components warm up.

In severe cold and heavy snow conditions, a train bulletin is issued to drivers to reduce maximum speed from 80 to 60 km/hr. This allows for more reaction time for the motormen when visibility is limited. The track system has a series of gas-fired heaters that melt the snow in interlocking areas to facilitate switching operations on the right of way.

On the downtown 7th Avenue transit corridor, switches are equipped with electric heaters. From time-to-time, all switches may not be able to handle severe winds and cold. These switches must be scraped and kept free from ice and snow manually until the weather subsides. The open track areas of the system are plowed with various speedswing attachments that plow snow that falls and drifts into the system. This is accomplished at night when track time becomes available. Graders are also brought in to clear snow on 7th Avenue when required. During heavy snows a great deal of labor is required to clear pedestrian crossing areas and to dig out non-heated, non-vital switches on the system.

Both bus and CTrain operators are trained to operate in ever-changing winter conditions. The City of Calgary’s Roads Department removes snow from streets on a priority basis with transit routes receiving top priority.

During cold weather, customers receive updates via the Calgary Transit Web site, the automated teleride system that can be called by customers for the latest information and the customer service call center.

The weather can create some significant challenges, but Calgary Transit is up to the task! In almost 100 years of providing top quality customer service to Calgarians, Calgary Transit has never shut down operations due to weather.

Duluth, Minn.
While winter weather conditions in Duluth, Minn., may qualify as unique on a national scale, on a local basis anything less than a 12-inch snowfall or an overnight temperature higher than 10 below zero, sometimes hitting 30 below, is considered a normal winter occurrence. However, these conditions prevail from November through May, and the accumulation of the ice and snow coupled with the steep hills of the lakeside service area, do present challenges.

The DTA rarely cancels service due to winter weather and, in fact, the transit service is used as the measure by which local businesses and schools determine whether to open or to announce a weather-related closing. Given this unofficial community responsibility, the system employees take great pride in prevailing throughout the winter season with no “cancelled service” days. The initial and perhaps most critical preparation for winter weather conditions by DTA staff actually begin months before the first snowflake falls. This involves the development of the specifications for the design and equipping of new bus purchases. All DTA buses are purchased with positive traction, two front auxiliary fans to supplement window defrosters, a heat grid in the destination sign compartment glass plus a fan to increase air flow there. The extra fans are used to prevent a sudden windshield fog up which can occur as buses descend from the higher elevation to the lakeside where temperatures can be as much as 20 degrees different. This condition occurs in both summer and winter. Buses also have an extra front entrance heater, two auxiliary under seat heaters, non-slip floor tread throughout the bus, e-coated radiators and air line dryers.

Winter preparation by the maintenance department begins in October and includes removing the front-mounted bike racks to minimize corrosion due to road salt, mounting re-cap snow tires on the rear of all buses, conducting preventive maintenance (PM) on the air line dryers, auxiliary heaters, heater blower motors and traction control. The PM intervals are also increased on the wheelchair ramps and lifts, and brushes are replaced as needed in the bus washer, as buses are sometimes washed twice a day to remove ice and grime and minimize the effects of corrosion on the body and undercarriage. Each bus is also equipped with an ice scrapper and spray bottle with washer fluid. In October the bus fuel is also switched to a 2 percent biodiesel, with a #2 polar blend which is good to 40 degrees below zero.

The forethought on bus design and equipment and pre-winter preparation by the maintenance department improves operational performance and minimizes mechanical failures during times of extreme winter weather conditions. Other winter preparations by DTA staff include the updating and circulation of the Emergency Procedures Plan to all supervisors and the updating of the list of “Immediate Need Bus Operators” who are available for emergency call-outs by the Duluth Fire and Police Departments for shelter and evacuation. Also, the review of all routes with Public Works officials to identify critical bus routes that require salt, sanding and plowing and updating of the list of critical contacts within their departments. The service cancellation criteria based on roadway conditions, weather forecasts and safety considerations is also reviewed. The DTA policy is to provide a minimum of a two-hour public notice for any cancellation of service due to weather. The public notice is coordinated by the Marketing Department and involves the partnering with a local radio station for a “Winter Traffic and Transit Watch Report”. The program is aired during weekday drive times and as needed during adverse weather conditions. The station airs the reports as a public service and will also carry live bus operations reports from operations supervisors and dispatchers.

Because the majority of calls received by the information operators during adverse weather are only to find out if the buses are running, the recorded phone message is continually updated to reflect weather and operating conditions. This procedure works well to eliminate backed-up phone lines by persons only seeking to find out if buses are running. In addition to the recorded information, the DTA provides updates on its Web site. Route specific information is provided to the call center by the dispatcher who is monitoring the system performance through the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) that includes Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL). Text messages concerning delays of service or changes can also be sent to a series of on-street information signs located at major transit hubs and to the on-board passenger signs. The DTA’s ADA service is operated by a separate contractor; however, the dispatch and reservations system can be monitored and transferred to the regular DTA Dispatch center for backup during emergency conditions.

The DTA Safety Department also conducts safe driving campaigns each year, with the fall effort emphasizing safety tips for winter driving. The combination of a skilled bus operator, a properly equipped and maintained vehicle, and an effective public communications program has proved to be the most effective approach to dealing with winter weather conditions in Duluth, Minn.

Gulfport, Miss.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is located in the central Gulf of Mexico, which is susceptible to frequent and sometimes very powerful hurricanes and tropical storms. We have experienced the two most powerful hurricanes to strike the United States in recorded history. Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We also experience severe, fast-moving thunderstorms on a regular basis in the summer months. These summer squalls can also spawn tornadoes. The numerous rivers in the area flood occasionally, displacing people from their homes.

Before Hurricane Katrina, evacuation transportation services were only available for persons with special needs. The results of that devastating storm caused the realization that a program was needed that offers services to the general public. Immediately after Katrina, Coast Transit Authority (CTA) was designated as the Transportation Coordinator for the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency (EMA). We were responsible for the initial development of an evacuation transportation plan for the general public in Harrison County and the ongoing management of that plan. We also provide similar services for the City of Ocean Springs, which is located in Jackson County.

The main goal of the new plan was to be prepared to provide evacuation transportation services to anyone that requested assistance. No one would be left in harms way for lack of transportation or financial resources. We also wanted to use local resources and personnel to care for our citizens instead of being reliant on outside help. The new program was available at the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season. Fortunately we did not have to use it.

The new program has three key elements. A registration program, pre-event evacuation transportation and emergency services after an event. CTA manages a year-round registration program that enables people to pre-register for evacuation services. This program gives our citizens comfort that assistance is available and enables us to plan to provide an adequate level of resources. The evacuation element has two phases.

The first phase provides for transportation out of the county to move people completely out of harms way. The EMA highly encourages people to leave. CTA, in conjunction with the local school systems, provides transportation to a centralized staging area where the state is responsible for transporting people out of the county and caring for them for the duration of an event. The second phase provides transportation to local shelters as last resort. We also transport people with pets to a local shelter that is designated for that purpose. After an event, CTA provides whatever services are required to support recovery. Each event is unique and requires different levels of effort. We provide services in support of the local shelters as long as they are open, including services from residential areas to the Points of Distribution so people can access ice, food and water, and to medical clinics, hospitals and dialysis units.

Coordination and communication is critical to the success of the plan. We meet with other members of the EMA on a regular basis to refine our plans and participate in all inclusive group meetings before and after each event. The CTA staff uses the same process in house. Everyone is very clear as to what their responsibilities are. Essential personnel cannot evacuate. They must be available to perform their assigned duties. CTA’s state-of-the-art communication system allows our staff to speak with each other without interruption. The system worked flawlessly during and after Katrina while many other organizations could not communicate at all. We evaluate and update our plans after each event to ensure that we are providing the quality and quantity of services that are necessary.

Needless to say things can get very interesting very quickly. It is comforting to all involved that we have an effective plan in place to assist the communities we serve when these events occur.

Anchorage, AK
As I look out my office window onto miles of parkland, the sun illuminating the southern faces of the mountains mere miles away, I am amazed at how quickly Anchorage weather changes and impacts our bus-operating world. Two weeks ago, we had white-out conditions, six accidents in a weekend and temperatures below zero degrees. Today, we’ve gained about an hour of sunlight, the temperature is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit and many roads have been plowed with literally tons of snow hauled to the snow dumps.

Our bus system endures periods of extreme weather, not unlike some of the northern cities in the Lower 48 states with one main difference — Anchorage winters last seven months. Cold temperatures and fluctuations can cause icing problems on the streets and on some of the less-traveled roads our buses travel. Along with cold winter temperatures comes the dark that Alaska is famous for. During those winter months, our daylight can last for less than six hours reducing visibility and heightening vigilance by our drivers. And what might be funny for outsiders, moose on our city streets are also a serious driving concern. Deep snows in the mountains drive the moose population into the city where finding food is easier for them. Moose dart out into roads in front of vehicles, often resulting in death to the moose and totaled vehicles. The short daylight hours compound the problem because the moose are brown and hard to see in the dark.

All fixed route buses have been equipped with flashing yellow strobes on the rear of the bus and the bus operator turns them on when preparing to stop at a bus stop along with the four-way flashers. This has resulted in a reduction of rear-end collisions.

Snowfall in Anchorage begins in October and averages 60 inches over the year. During severe snowstorms, snow clearing crews concentrate on main thoroughfares and secondary roads can wait for as many as four or five days before they are cleared. Often the snow is plowed to the side creating large berms that narrow the streets. That in turn reduces visibility and maneuverability. Buses are forced to travel slower through the neighborhoods and passing cars are often required to pull into a driveway. Our operations staff works with the street maintenance department to report problem areas, and hires a crew of youth to dig out bus stops and unbury benches covered by snow.

Monthly safety meetings keep our bus drivers alert to winter driving hazards. Many of our drivers have years of experience driving Alaska roads, and nothing can substitute for their experience and skill. Each driver is issued ice grippers for their shoes to eliminate slips, trips and falls outside the bus.

Out of 119 accidents and incidents logged in 2006, only 33 accidents were preventable by our operators. Most damage occurred to vehicles running into our buses. Our maintenance staff includes a body shop team of three who repair everything from replacing windshields and other minor damage to major accident damage reconstruction. We quickly repair vehicle damage to maintain a good looking fleet. In addition, the snow and sand on the road make a mess of the bus exterior and it must be washed every night.

Our current clear, sunny weather tends to lull me into a false sense of safety — that the weather will be friendlier to us than the beginning of winter — yet I recall the 36 inches of snow we got on Saint Patrick’s Day a few years ago. They are calling for freezing rain tomorrow and spring is almost two months away, but there really is nothing more beautiful than fresh snow blanketing the landscape. It’s a challenge, but Anchorage is up to it.

Lakewood, Wash.
In the Pacific Northwest there’s a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around for ten minutes and it will change.” Although the area is best known for its rainy yet mild climate, there is the occasional storm that gets our attention. Since mid-December of 2006, the Puget Sound region experienced major flooding, two wind storms and two snowstorms. These harsh weather events occurred with very little notice.

The flooding in lowland areas of some routes required using emergency routing and in some cases, curtailment of service.

The windstorms were more disruptive. Flying tree branches and falling trees created dangerous driving conditions. Many roads were forced to close until trees were removed from the roadway.

The most considerable disruption came from the two snowstorms. Our local geography of hills and the fact that we don’t get regular practice driving on snow and ice-covered streets can cause a number of problems.

The agency response is directed by a comprehensive “Snow Plan” that is updated on an annual basis. Agreements the agency has with local municipalities are also reviewed on an annual basis.

The challenge for a transit operator during a snowstorm is negotiating the steep hills as they head into and out of town. To complicate the matter, due to the infrequency and short duration of snowstorms, local municipalities have limited investments for snow removal machinery. The equipment they do have is immediately put into service clearing the designated priority streets, although the recent snowstorms overwhelmed them.

When operators or field supervisors report dangerous driving conditions to the Communications Center, they immediately activate the snow plan system-wide and broadcast a directive to begin using designated routes. Supervisors continue checking the condition of the roads until they determine it safe to return to the regular route.

The Maintenance Department prepares for the snow by having an annual vehicle chaining class and completing an inventory. When notified by the Communications Center, the maintenance field vehicles are stocked with bus chains for installation in the field as dictated by specific location conditions. Vehicles are chained in order to continue service and get riders safely to their destination and return the bus to base. However, chaining buses is avoided where possible.

Many inbound routes originate in higher-elevation, rural communities where there is usually more snow. Chains are essential for safe travel in the rural areas.

Manager’s Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (920) 563-6388 or via email at