Five railway hacks to survive winter

Winter has come. In this regard, many European railway companies started to report about their preparations for fighting against heavy snows, icing and other unpleasant features of the season. Which hacks do they use in order to survive winter?

With growing passenger traffic and developing shift to rail, the punctuality issue is becoming crucial for the rail sector, especially in wintertime. It is a period not only for Christmas vacations but for extreme weather too. Usually, passengers do not feel the difference between winter and other seasons in terms of train traffic. This is a result of the big campaigns being provided by the rail infrastructure managers and railway operators. These efforts require regular investments. Annually Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) allocates 40 million euros to be ready for winter and its surprises. Deutsche Bahn (DB), the largest European railway company, plans to invest 70 million euros in fighting against snow and ice this winter. To what purposes the railway companies spend the money?

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The cleaning of a train station in Germany, source: Deutsche Bahn (DB)

To monitor weather

Like the passengers travelling by train, the railway companies use weather forecasts in their winter operations. To this end, they cooperate with external meteorological services. For Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), meteorologists provide forecasts for around 800 operating points across Switzerland. Such a detailed analysis allows the company to be ready for heavy snows, storms and other extreme weather conditions. The same practice is being used by DB and ÖBB. With the help of forecasts, the railway companies plan their operations, use more maintenance vehicles and mobilise their staff if it is required. To obtain a better forecast, some weather stations are constructed close to the railways. Among the prominent examples is the Erfurt-Nuremberg high-speed line in Germany where DB has erected four weather stations.

Norwegian rail infrastructure manager Bane NOR also gather information about weather, avalanche risks and large volumes of water from several meteorological institutions. Besides the use of forecasts, the company improved the knowledge of its personnel about weather conditions along the railway lines in different regions of Norway. Bane NOR makes a strong focus in training its staff to be ready for avalanches.

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Road-rail vehicle cleans tracks
ProRail road-rail vehicle cleans tracks in the Netherlands, source: ProRail

To clean tracks

To maintain the rails clean is the most important task for the infrastructure managers. In order to provide this, they use various methods. The most popular tactic is to remove snow from tracks using special maintenance vehicles. It could be a conventional locomotive or a road-rail vehicle equipped with a wedge plough. However, rail infrastructure managers prefer to use specialised snowplough railway vehicles. Some of them remove snow with a plough or with a rotating brush, other ones blow snow away. Both types are actively used for track maintenance in winter. The rolling stock manufacturers are improving the technology. For example, the Norwegian company Øveraasen has developed a combined track cleaner vehicle that is able to remove snow by blowing and removing it with a special rotating brush. Such technology provides more accurate cleaning of the railway tracks.

Apart from the maintenance vehicles, the infrastructure managers still use human workforce. Some staff is involved in cleaning train stations with snowplough equipment. Other workers are focused on maintenance operations at various facilities. In spite of implementing of automated technologies, some works must be performed manually including de-icing the bridges and tunnels, shovelling the platform roofs, the removal of snow from turnouts or cleaning the tracks at railway crossings.

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Rail workers heat turnouts in extreme winter, source: ProRail

To heat turnouts

Turnouts is another important issue for rail infrastructure managers. Earlier, the frozen turnouts often caused disruption of railway operations in wintertime. Therefore, several solutions have been implemented to prevent this. Most of the rail infrastructure managers prefer to install the heating systems or heaters. They work at temperatures of up to minus 20 degrees. The weather sensors of the heaters react to temperature and humidity and automatically start or stop to heat a turnout.

For instance, DB has equipped 49,000 of approximately 70,000 turnouts with heaters. 12,700 heaters of them have extra coverage for protection against snowdrifts and ice chunks falling from trains. Most of the turnouts in Germany are examined manually while the remote control is available only for 5,800 turnouts which are connected to a special digital diagnostic platform. In Austria, two-thirds of turnouts (10,000 of 15,000 units) are also equipped with electric heaters. In the Netherlands, this rate is almost 80 per cent: 5,500 of 7,000 turnouts are heated in wintertime.

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Turnout with heater in Switzerland, source: SBB

SBB has a lower rate of heater-equipped turnouts – around 60 per cent or 7,400 units of the total number. However, the company succeeded in energy-saving policy regarding the heaters. According to SBB’s estimations, these devices consume from 60 to 70 gigawatt-hours per winter season. In money value, it means the expenditure of 3 million Swiss francs (over 2.7 million euros). Several years ago the company started to reduce the costs for heater maintenance by converting them from gas-powered to electric. Owing to this, SBB saves up to 7 gigawatt-hours per winter. As of today, only 37 per cent turnout heaters are gas-powered. In the coming future, the conversion will be continued.

Also, SBB tests other innovations in heating the turnouts. In September 2017 SBB launched a geothermal heating system in Eschenbach, the canton of Lucerne. A natural heat via a geothermal probe with a heat pump is transported through water-pipes to the rails. It is expected that this project will provide energy-saving at a rate of up to 30 per cent.

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Overhead wires
Overhead wires at Rotterdam Centraal station, source: Prorail

To de-ice wires

Besides the mentioned issues, the electrified railways have another one. In winter, the overhead wires are vulnerable to icing. As a result, the electric locomotives and trains can’t collect the current from the wires. Southern Sweden has suffered from such issue in January 2010 when most local trains could not run on their routes because of problems with iced wires. The same situation has occurred in Slovenia in February 2014 after a strong ice storm. Most of the overhead wires on the electrified railways were iced. The country’s national railway operator Slovenske železnice was forced to use diesel locomotives to deliver freight on the electrified lines.

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Locomotive with vibropantograph
Ukrainian shunting locomotive with vibropantograph, source: Wikimedia Commons

To fight against ice, the engineering companies developed several solutions. They allow the infrastructure managers to prevent ice emerging on the wires. German company Stemann-Technik, a part of Wabtec Group, created Non-Icing System. It is very similar to an ordinary pantograph but instead of the conventional carbon contact strip, it contains a felt roller. The latter covers the overhead wires with an anti-freezing compound that is stored in a special tank inside the vehicle.

Swiss company Kummler+Matter developed its own de-icing system known as ProFil 3V. With its help, the overhead wires are covered with ice-breaking or waterproofing spray. To this end, a special module is installed on the current collector. At the same time, Russian Railways prefer to use vibropantographs. Such kind of equipment has been installed on over 160 locomotives. The pneumatic pantographs generate additional vibrations to broke the ice on the wires. The same solution is used by the railway operators in the neighbouring countries.

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Spraying ICE high-train with glycol fluid, source: Deutsche Bahn (DB)

To spray trains

For providing a comfortable train journey, all the above-mentioned infrastructure measures are not enough. As a result, the railway operators also take care of their train and locomotive fleet. For diesel vehicles, a winter fuel is used during the season. As for electric multiple units or passenger carriages, they are connected to the heating systems at night. SBB preheats their trains in such a way.

The more serious problem for railway operators in winter is the so-called ballast flight. On the run, the massive blocks of ice and snow could be gathered on the bogies or at the bottom of a carbody. They often fall in tunnels or at stations and cause damage of the signalling or other railway equipment. In order to prevent the emergence of ice and snow blocks on the trains, they are sprayed with special de-icing fluids that contain glycol. Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen has six de-icing installations for spraying its trains: in Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Hoofddorp, Nijmegen, The Hague, Utrecht. Deutsche Bahn operates 70 such facilities across Germany.

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Author: Mykola Zasiadko

Mykola Zasiadko is editor of online trade magazines RailTech.com and RailFreight.com.

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