Photo by wings777

If there’s one thing we learned from our wacky weather week, it’s that no mode of transportation, steel, asphalt, or concrete, is immune to cold harsh weather.  During the ice storm, there wasn’t a soul in the region that didn’t find trouble getting around.  This included rail users, of course, when both Central Link and Tacoma Link’s catenary lines iced over and rail switches along the BNSF mainline froze.  Buses, however, were hit much harder– jackknifed and stranded, many were left out on streets and highways near and far while those that did keep running were slow and unreliable.

During last year’s Thanksgiving storm, Link was lauded for its smooth performance as trains whizzed by parking lot traffic on I-5 and a record number of passengers boarded.  The Seattle Times took the opportunity to pit it against Thursday’s ice storm woes, with a seeming interest in demonstrating light rail’s shortfalls.  Too often, though, stuff like this turns into fodder for transit opponents, who’ll use it as a case example against building rail, even when the framing is simply saying that ice is more menacing than snow (which it is).

With Link this time around, the woes were attributable to a disadvantage in the electrification technology– the overhead catenary lines froze over, something that wouldn’t have happened with a third rail system or if, say, the line were entirely subway.  But you can take just about any form of transportation and improve it in some way shape or form.  Just like how switch heaters and third rail help trains fend away ice, studded tires and chains help cars and buses navigate the snow.

Things like this muck up discussions and debates over mode technology, especially when people make an emotional argument against a mode because of one experience they had aboard that mode.  If last November was any indication, rail does hold a commanding advantage over road-based modes in inclement weather, not because of any technological ice/snow-proof advancements but because of the physical design of the rail trackway itself.

Whether it’s the track design or higher passenger capacity offered by rail, or the greater coverage flexibility from buses, the inherent qualities of any modal technology should be the real cornerstone of the debate.

*Disclaimer: The author is currently employed by Sound Transit.  However, all opinions expressed in this article are completely his own and may not reflect the views of anyone else.

43 Replies to “Rail Outperforms But Not Immune to Ice”

  1. The beautiful 3rd rail is far from immune to snow and ice problems. DC occasionally goes “tunnel ops only” when the snow and ice get to be too much for the 3rd. (Amusingly, in 2008 when I was working on ULink, we had to design switch heater accommodations into the UW crossover because the ambient temp in the tunnel was near the threshold to require such equipment.)

    That Seattle Times articles have pissed me off. Link has been extremely reliable and has functioning rather well (would have been near perfect if it weren’t for the stalled train). Switch heaters and the ice trains seem to be doing the trick. Perhaps this is a clue to build more rail and have less of a reliance on bendy buses.

    Plows were out quickly, agencies were informative, and people actually used some common sense. It seems that the region may have actually learned something from years of history and decided to crank the snow response up to 11 for 2012.

    1. If it weren’t for the Seattle Times interviewing all those people who had complaints about how Link performed in the last few days, I wouldn’t have heard about it. Information and facts are not the enemy.

      1. I agree that information and facts are not the enemy. But reporting them in a distorting, bias or unjustified matter does. The Times typically writes from the negative perspective with the Link and tries to make it appear worse than it actually is.

  2. “That Seattle Times articles have pissed me off.” Was the article inaccurate? If so, tell us which parts were incorrect.

    1. Sam, that’s a straw man, and you know it, so stop with the asinine trolling.

      You can be perfectly correct and only report on things you agree with.

    2. After last weekend’s Streetcar versus Mazda accident, didn’t the Seattle Times report that a witness saw the streetcar try to swerve out of the way of the auto? Really??

    3. OK, I’ll bite on this, even tho it’s a week later… There is an error — an error of omission. The article correctly observes that the 2011 experience was in contrast to 2011 — but then it never explains why. Therefore it deprived the reader of useful information about the circumstances that caused the problem — freezing rain -> ice on the OCS. The story impies some sort of operational and/or design flaws, and invites readers to speculate, without including or updating the causal information. That’s bad reporting. Dunno if it’s biased, but it’s ppor quality.

  3. I am as far from being an electrical engineer as possible, so humor me here, but it would seem like there would be a way to add a resistance heating component to the wire or something. Not that we’d need that here more than three or four times a decade.

    I wonder how places like Minneapolis handle this?

    1. Minneapolis rarely has ice. Snow is almost never a problem for catenary because the wire is so thin.

      Unfortunately a “resistance heating component” in the wire would be resistant ALL the time consuming electrical energy for no benefit.

      1. In Salt Lake City they have a second pantograph on the front of the vehicles that is designed to knock ice of the overhead wires. They will also run a empty train along all the routes before regular service opens to make sure all the wires are clear of ice.

      2. John D describes the gold standard procedures; Salt Lake really went the extra mile to run in all weather conditions. The “second pantograph” is probably overkill.

        But it’s standard to run trains along the line in icy weather, 24 hours a day, to keep the lines clear. The pantograph will keep scraping the ice off as it goes. You have to do it repeatedly / continuously to avoid ice buildup. Advertise it as “special ice-only late-night service” if you like :-)

        If there’s a HUGE amount of ice the lines will collapse, but that didn’t happen this time, and when that happens people’s roofs are collapsing too.

        Sound Transit just needs to have (1) a deicing policy, (2) someone assigned on every shift to watch for an ice problem, and (3) the ability to call in people on overtime to run the trains for deicing.

      3. Nathaniel:
        “Sound Transit just needs to have (1) a deicing policy, (2) someone assigned on every shift to watch for an ice problem, and (3) the ability to call in people on overtime to run the trains for deicing.”

        We do have a deicing policy, the control center watches forecasts with an eye towards possible icing on the rails and catenary. We have a criterion we use and err on the side of caution.

        We have personnel on duty availible for running the “Ice Trains” and when the forecast is for icing conditions, operators are scheduled in, often at straight time, to run the trains.

        This week’s icing was an anomaly, the ice accumulated more quickly than we run the trains. The “Special Ice Trains” that were sent out had special Pantographs for cutting the ice accumulation. (Like steel shoes on the trolley coaches, not good for the overhead, but they get the job done.)

      4. SJ, interesting to know. This was indeed a very strange storm. Witness the first time ever that the Narrows was closed because of ice falling from the main support cables! I’m not a blind rah-rah ST supporter but in this case the agency did everything right. Any further precautions (expense) would be unwarranted. Besides, the airport was virtually shutdown anyway and so were the majority of businesses. Going forward it will be interesting to see what the operational accommodation will be should something like this happen after U Link opens. The portion from DT to UW is completely underground so, assuming the trains can get there from the MF this most crucial portion of the line should stay running.

  4. while I think that the claims of insufficient quality of service are overblown, I do think ST inability to distribute information about weather-related changes in service were inexcusable.

    1. Especially given what I gather is available as distribution mediums.

      The kids tell me about this thing called Tweeter and the MyFace?

      I gather there is also some way to send mass short messages to those newfangled carphones that have gotten small enough to fit in a pocket?

      And then I remember being on a bus in another country 20 years ago where we got a live announcement from the central dispatch after they effectively took over the bus’ PA system (tannoy). Has this technology reached our shores yet?

    2. Amen on that one. I couldn’t find snow routing information about Issaquah Highlands via my phone. Luckily, the 218 shuttle driver told me the story. Too bad the last 555 pulled out of Issaquah TC right as the 218 chained shuttle I was on arrived there. (Given the angle of the 555, I don’t think he could have seen us come in. However, if Metro had “Connection Protection” working, maybe I would have had a chance to make that connection.

  5. It’s interesting that the caternary was the problem and not the track. If we had an independently powered train, one using fuel cells, then it could run in snow.

    1. The wonderful thing about engineering is that there’s always a tradeoff.

      Yes, it is possible that self-propelled cars would have avoided this specific problem. What tradeoffs need to be made?

      But we all know you’re not interested in doing any actual analysis.

      1. Is there any analysis for any and all parts of LINK?

        Choice of technologies?

        Is there a document justifying the Beacon Hill tunnel…the most expensive and little used stop?

        Please point me to these analyses and I will use them as a standard to provide my own!!

      2. Yes. It’s the EIS. I think it’s available at the central library — Oran could tell you for sure.

      3. And for what it’s worth, no one expects you to write an EIS for every blog comment you make. :) We’re just hoping for something a little more nuanced than “hydrogen is always perfect”.

        For example, there’s a saying in computer science that, if you can’t think of a situation that a programming language isn’t suitable for, then you haven’t spent enough time thinking about the issue. Can you name a situation where you don’t think fuel cells are the answer?

    2. Fuel cells are rather inefficient. If you’re simply transmitting electricity down a catenary wire, there’s some losses, on the order of one percent. If you use the electricity to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen, there’s a loss of energy there. The hydrogen you get contains less energy than the electricity you put in. It also takes energy to compress the hydrogen into the tank. Hydrogen also has a nasty habit of leaking out of the tanks, losing more energy. Finally, the fuel cells themselves are nowhere near 100% efficient. So you’re talking about a system that is more complicated, less efficient and less mature technologically, that might or might not work better in the snow.

      Hydrogen fuel cells are generally best suited to weight-critical aerospace applications. The Apollo spacecraft, for example, used fuel cells to provide electricity (and potable water) during the lunar missions. Because the Link has a catenary wire, it doesn’t have to store its energy on board, so the high energy density of hydrogen would not be useful.

      However, the flammability of hydrogen makes explosions a very real concern. The current Link trains, with no fuel nor batteries on board, have very little risk of exploding.

      A catenary wire/third rail power system is, after more than a century of development, about as close to 100% efficiency as is possible. I think Sound Transit was wise to choose the technology they did, although they perhaps need more experience dealing with snow.

      1. Yeah. Salt Lake currently operates the “gold standard” for a similar light rail system in cold weather; heated switches, ice-clearing trains, the whole works. Someone at Sound Transit should call them and ask them about their cold weather storm procedures,

      2. Great analysis…circa 1972. What you’re saying is completely out of date…in fact, a casual search of current hydrogen articles will confirm that.

        But it sounds like you’ve been brainwashed by Jay Inslee…whose book “Apollo’s Fire” makes careful work to keep fuel cells suppressed…even though, as you say, the technology is proven, and growning, since the 1960s.

        Meanwhile, the rest of the world is planning a hydrogen future.

      3. The fewer times we convert the energy to another form of energy the better. How about we just learn to store electricity with some sort of density and be done with it? Wasting time on taking electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen then store that somewhere which will then through a chemical reaction create electricity seems like a lot of work to get what we started with.

        Thinks like space vehicles using fuel cells makes sense since extension cords don’t seem to survive takeoff and keep coming unplugged.

      4. Hydrogen has a high energy density by weight. An Otto cycle internal-combustion engine running on hydrogen is said to have a maximum efficiency of about 38%, 8% higher than a gasoline internal-combustion engine.

        Wasting time on taking electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen then store that somewhere which will then through a chemical reaction create electricity seems like a lot of work to get what we started with

        That seems like a valid criticism…of chemical battery cars! But advances in pressure storage and solid storage make hydrogen a less lossy technology.

        Yes, ideally we would have superconducting grid systems using 100% efficiency Telsa-type long range Witricity to broadcast energy Flash Gordon style to vehicles.

        In the short term, a simple process of adding a hydrogen pump at a gasoline station, putting fuel cell cars and transit vehicles on the market and doing an electronic emissions conversion and adding a tank so a legacy ICE can run on hydrogen would eliminate a lot of pollution.

      5. Hydrogen’s a joke. The conversion losses are terrible, and storage technology isn’t getting any better.

        Battery-electric cars are *already more efficient* than hydrogen cars.

        And by the way — I know some people with a magnetic battery design which will kick the ass of chemical batteries.

        Hydrogen is a dead end. Electromagnetism is the future.

  6. It’s surprising that since ST took the precaution to run trains overnight that the ice was able to build up. Then again, this was the first time in history that the Tacoma Narrows bridges were closed because of falling ice from the main support cables! Turns out it didn’t matter much because the airport was all but shut down and very few people were venturing out of their driveway to go shopping or to work. What happens in the next volcanic eruption? We need to invest in making Link ash proof!

    1. I knew it was bad when I had to dig my Subaru out. The ice/snow combination in my driveway grabbed onto the car and made all four wheels spin. That’s the first time that’s happened in 12 years of owning that car.

    2. I heard that the reason ice built up was because one of the trains that was cleaning ice off at night “stalled” and so ST wasn’t able to clean it all night.

      1. Ohhhh. Well, that would make sense! That’s pretty unavoidable, trains do occasionally stop working! That means that the shutdown of Link was practically a freak accident.

  7. I find it interesting that the problem with Link on Thursday was apparently because a Link train stalled INSIDE THE BEACON HILL TUNNEL. Was there ice on the wires inside that tunnel? Does this mean that even tunnels don’t protect light rail from bad weather?

    Link has been having a lot of service disruptions which have noting to do with weather. Just last night, the downtown tunnel was closed for about 3 hours due to an “incident.”

    Then, there was a Link train which stalled in the downtown tunnel a couple of weeks ago, blocking the rails for quite a while.

    And there was the incident with the “incindiary device” outside a bank near a Link station on MLK JR Way, which shut down Link service at that point along the line for hours.

    And there have been other, shorter, disruptions to Link service in the past month.

    These disruptions seem to be occuring more often lately, and most of them have nothing to do with inclement weather. What gives?

    1. Why have there been so many closures of the DSTT in the past month? I’m getting closure alerts once a twice. They never say why. I know some are assaults and some are stuck wheelchair lifts, but there can’t be that many of those, can there? Why should the number suddenly shoot up?

      1. Anyone know what happened to close the DSTT last night? I can’t find anything that says more than
        That it was due to an incident.

      2. I too find it annoying when they close DSTT and refer to it as an “incident”. Is there some law protecting the privacy of the DSTT? /Sarcasm. We can handle the truth, keepers of the DSTT.

      3. “I’m getting closure alerts once a twice.”

        Oops. I meant, I’m getting DSTT closure alerts once or twice a week, starting about a month ago.

      4. Would be great to see STB dig into the frequency and causes of these issues. I know things don’t always go to plan, but the frequent closures of the DSTT and Link breakdowns are embarrassing.

    2. Not much can be done by ST about police-style “incidents”….

      But if there are repeated instances of trains “stalling”, they might want to check either their warranty or their operator training procedures. Electric trains shouldn’t “stall” very often. Once in a while, sure, but not regularly.

  8. Some of these comments seem overheated. The great Seattle mode war was settled in the 2008 election, and I’ve never heard anybody cite ice as a political argument for or against building rail transit. Has anyone else?

    — Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times.

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