NJ: Can the extreme heat impact your commuter train? You bet.

June 20, 2024
Steel rails and catenary wires can both be impacted by extreme heat.
What weather forecasters called a dangerous heat wave has settled into the state, and it’s going to make life tough for residents — and for the trains that get them to and from work.
“What excessive heat does is permeate every part of the railway system,” said Bryan Sooter, American Public Transit Association’s Director of Standards. “You’ve got an abnormal weather event that just takes over every part of the operation, not just on the mechanical and engineering side but the human element.”
Highs climbed the low 90s on Tuesday for most of the state, with a heat index between 95 and 99 degrees in the afternoon under a blazing sun, the National Weather Service said.
Tracks may look like they most solid part of railroad infrastructure, but heat affects steel rails as much as it does the string over overhead electrical lines, he said.
“When a railroad is constructed, steel rails are physically constrained to the track bed at a temperature that the railroad determines is the neutral rail temperature, based on geography and environment, Sooter said.
“When you get abnormal weather, it’s going to impact that,” he said. “It could be a heat wave where you get excessive forces built up in the rail, which could cause track buckling, which could lead to derailments.”
Railroads compensate for it by doing more frequent track inspections and slowing down train speeds, he said.
“They have to reduce the speed of the train to reduce the forces that are being put to the rail,’ he said. “This impacts service.”
Similar physical characteristics also apply to the overhead metal catenary wires that power trains on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex lines and Newark and Hudson Bergen light rail lines.
“So when you have these weather events, the railroads develop measures to deal with them that entail increased inspections, whether it’s on the track or if they have overhead catenary wires,” Sooter said.
With the overhead catenary wires, the heat condition railroads pay the most attention to is sagging wires, which can lead to “entanglement” where the equipment on a rail car or locomotive that collects electrics can tear sagging wires down, he said.
“There is a certain (wire) geometry need(ed) to operate at. Excessive temp and thermal forces with the wire…it sags and gets outside the nominal geometry,” Sooter said. “They reduce train speeds to reduce entanglement.”
Equipment is susceptible. Two disabled NJ Transit trains were blamed for service problems on Tuesday morning and Tuesday afternoon. Just like a car, heat can affect trains, although Sooter said it’s usually individual components that fail.
After a series of train delays in May, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner replied to questions about the incidents from Gov. Phil Murphy. He said an early analysis of the events indicates the failures broadly fall into two categories: Amtrak infrastructure-related delays for two of five incidents and NJ Transit equipment-related delays for three of five incidents.
On Tuesday morning, Amtrak reported overhead wire problems in Penn Station that, in conjunction with a disabled commuter train, resulted in suspending service to New York. Under new protocols worked out with Amtrak, NJ Transit’s landlord on the NEC, NJ Transit officials were notified at 6:30 from Amtrak “down on the platform,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO.
“There are a lot of weak links in the (infrastructure) chain that predate Amtrak and we’re working with them to prioritize and replace the weakest links one by one,” he said.
Both agencies are also working on pre-position teams to act faster when there is infrastructure trouble, he said.
“You can’t have a person everywhere but we’re looking at teams pre-positioned so when it happens you can respond (quickly) to problems,” he said.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @CommutingLarry.

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