IL: Metra Gears up for Severe Weather with New Anemometers

They are small devices with a tongue-twister name but Metra and its contract carriers, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, are hoping they can help minimize delays on our rail system when severe spring and summer storms strike the Chicago region.

The devices are called anemometers, and they measure wind speed and direction. Metra provided the funding for the installation of eight of them along the three UP lines and three along the BNSF line. The devices, costing about $25,000 each, will provide real-time data about winds, giving UP and BNSF dispatchers more accurate information about weather conditions. On Metra Union Pacific lines, three anemometers were installed on the West Line, three on the Northwest Line and two on the North Line.

 “This a tool that we hope will provide real results for our riders by minimizing delays when storms strike the Chicago region, yet preserve the standards of safety that we and our partner railroads take very seriously,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno.

As many Metra riders know, the three UP lines – North, Northwest and West – are owned by Union Pacific Railroad. They operate the commuter service on the lines with their own employees under a purchase-of-service agreement with Metra. Metra has a similar purchase-of-service arrangement with BNSF Railway, which owns and operates the BNSF line.

UP, BNSF and Metra have similar operating rules, but there are some slight differences. One of the differences is in our approach to operating in extreme weather. Ultimately, we all share the goal of operating safely and protecting our riders.

In the case of Union Pacific, their rules do not allow passenger trains to operate in extreme high wind. Wherever possible, UP tries to stop trains in stations to give riders a choice between waiting and seeking alternative transportation. In the past, UP has relied on weather forecasts and some internal analysis to determine when and where trains may be halted because of high winds. Those forecasts can cover a broad area and a long time period, and therefore may result in widespread and lengthy service disruptions.

“Safety is paramount when it comes to railroad operations – whether it is freight or commuter trains. The strategic installation of the anemometers will assist train dispatchers with enhancing customer service while at the same time helping them restore service following severe weather events involving high winds,” said Wes Lujan, Union Pacific Railroad’s assistant vice president, public affairs.

The anemometers that have been installed are now tied into UP’s dispatching center and will supplement its forecasts with actual conditions to determine whether trains should be halted and for how long. The added information should mean any halts in service will affect a smaller area (and fewer trains) for a shorter period.

BNSF Railway’s operating rules in extreme weather are similar to UP’s. Metra provided the funding for anemometers to be installed on that line last year and the results were excellent. In the last significant high-wind event, there were no stoppages on the BNSF line.

 “Due to the information provided by the anemometers, our dispatching center was able to make decisions during last August’s storm based upon real-time information. The results were exactly what we had hoped for,” said Dave Leahy, suburban terminal manager for BNSF. “Metra trains operated on the BNSF throughout the storm and experienced minimal delays without compromising safety.”

Metra’s operating rules in extreme weather generally allow trains inside the warning area to move at greatly reduced speeds, and we rely on information from the field when making decisions about train movements. Trains outside the warning area may be stopped before entering it or allowed to proceed at greatly reduced speeds, depending on the type of warning. Metra’s policy allows for flexibility while still making safety the overriding concern. The anemometer project now gives Metra’s partners, UP and BNSF, a tool that will add to their flexibility when making operating decisions during severe weather.