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Winter is Coming

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Neil Burke, Director Enterprise Risk and Crisis Preparedness, is CP’s in-house weather guru and winter preparation planning specialist. Neil has been in charge of amalgamating and updating CP’s comprehensive winter plan for the past 10 years, working closely with numerous internal departments across our network to manage, streamline and mitigate weather impacts on our systems.

“Every winter has its unique challenges,” says Neil. “Nothing can be predicted with 100 percent accuracy. We usually plan for the worst, but past experience and strategic thinking play an important role when it comes to execution and reacting to unforeseen circumstances.”

Winter planning at CP comes in the form of a comprehensive document that includes weather analysis, various communication plans, emergency measures, specific terminal-based winter preparations, avalanche preparedness and numerous other components that are necessary in proactively preparing our network.

The plan is reviewed and updated annually by senior management in conjunction with members of CP’s operation teams. Pre-planning activities start as early as September, with the plan going into full effect from about mid-November until the end of March each year.

“Past experience and strategic thinking play an important role when it comes to execution and reacting to unforeseen circumstances.”

Preparing our network for winter is no small feat and it usually begins with winterizing our track components and terminals. Some of the major preparations include switch heaters being installed in areas where snow is known to blow in and freeze switches; ditches and yards being cleared to ensure there are no tripping hazards underneath the snow; positioning snow clearing equipment and extra crews strategically in areas across our network; and providing additional safety training sessions for all yard and terminal employees.

Our trains and locomotive fleet also undergo preparations depending on the temperatures and weather conditions they needs to operate in. For example, during an extreme cold snap, a train’s makeup may be adapted by reducing its length and strategically adding certain locomotives to allow the assets to operate more safely and efficiently. Operating plans may also be altered to avoid picking up extra cars to minimize train building in temperatures below -25°C (-13°F).

“While CP takes every measure to ensure the efficiency of our operations, our customers also play an important role in helping us maintain good service quality,” says Neil. “Each winter, to better facilitate product pickup and delivery, CP communicates and works closely with our customers to educate them on how to best prepare their plants for the upcoming season.”

Besides strategic planning, another important part of Neil’s job is winter weather predictions. For this, he relies on a variety of sources and factors, including the analysis of past weather patterns, Environment Canada reports, the National Weather Network, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, different weather applications, the tracking and observation of annual weather systems and events affecting North America and even weather data provided by our own railway network.

Two specific weather events Neil is always mindful of are the Global La Niña and El Niño Southern Oscillation changes in the Pacific Ocean’s temperature. These yearly events can have a major impact on weather in certain areas of North America and can affect CP’s mobility in various regions across Canada and the United States.

According to Neil, an El Niño winter signifies warmer temperatures in the west corridor with less snowfall in the Rockies, while a La Niña winter registers as more average temperatures on the east coast, with increased snow and lower temperatures in the west. Understanding the pattern of these two events every year, in combination with additional weather data and analysis, provides Neil with an accurate macro view of the winter ahead, and guides winter planning preparations.

Neil predicts an old time winter for Canada in 2017/2018, with a weak impact from La Niña in mid-December. This means we are anticipating a traditional winter, characterized by short intervals of below -30°C (-22°F) in the prairies region, with cool temperatures on the east coast and milder temperatures on the west coast, coupled with average snowfall volumes in the Canadian Rockies.

Similar to Canada, the United States part of our network will experience below -30°C (-22 °F) cold snaps in the upper central plains region and cool temperatures with average snowfall, in the American northeast. In comparison, the Southern part of Iowa and Illinois will register milder temperatures with variable precipitation.

This year Neil has also been working on an innovative approach to further improve the accuracy of his weather predictions, which involves CP’s hotbox system – a set of over 380 already installed detectors, which sit trackside along our rail line.

“In some areas across our network weather predictions are largely based on computer models and data gathered from remote weather stations that don’t necessarily reflect area temperatures accurately, due to their distance in relation to our tracks,” says Neil. “In the past this has resulted in substantial differences in temperature, which in turn negatively affected our proactive winter preparations.”

Neil’s approach involves leveraging the detectors’ existing temperature readings, which are recorded and reported when a train passes by, and inputting them into a central data collection system. This then allows information to be better plotted. He is also hoping to eventually have the hotboxes record and transmit temperature readings every hour on their own, essentially acting as CP’s internal weather analysis system.

Working in conjunction with members of the Signals and Communications team and members of the Information Services group, Neil is enhancing and further upgrading the hotbox system to be able to add extra options, such as wind anemometers and barometric pressure devices, thus improving system functionality and the quality of the weather data gathered.

“We are currently still in the process of upgrading the system, but I am hoping to have the project completed by the end of this year,” says Neil. “I am confident this will provide us with more accurate temperature readings and with better overall weather forecasting abilities across our network, resulting in improved winter planning capabilities.”

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