Friday, September 23, 2016

The Challenges of the Digital Age when Nature Strikes

A UTA Frontrunner train pulls into the Ogden station in March 2016. In the September 22 storm, the Ogden area was hit hardest, with a tornado touching down in Washington Terrace, resulting in delays and damages to the Frontrunner rail system.
It's no question that practically every process in existence today involves some form of electronics to operate. Everything from automobiles to apple peelers have some sort of chip in them. The benefits to this are obvious; we can accomplish things safer, easier, and more efficiently with the help of digital programming. However, the complexities and frailties of the digital age raise their ugly heads at the least opportune moment, and especially when their functionality are needed the most.

Yesterday, Thursday 22 September 2016, an unusually strong storm raged across Ogden heading south towards Salt Lake City, which included high winds, intense rain, golf-ball sized hail, and even a tornado (a very, very rare occurrence in a mountainous state where drought and earthquakes are the biggest natural dangers). 7,200 homes were put without power, and that number does not include the number of business and industrial structures without electricity.

The power outage wreaked havoc on Utah's public transit system. Since grade crossings, signals and crossovers on UTA's Frontrunner rail system are all electronically controlled, a power outage means that the system cannot function properly. UTA has backup generators at strategic points on its system, but this case showed that these were not enough. Even where generators were up and running, crossing gates continued to malfunction and Maintenance of Way crews covered the line through the night on emergency overnight shifts to isolate and repair the problems. Even then, when services reopened on the morning of the 23rd, the trains still could not operate at maximum efficiency.

UTA's tweets regarding Frontrunner Service after the storm on September 22.

For example, the 6000 South crossing in Roy and the Jordan Gateway crossing in Salt Lake City were restricted to 15 mph, far below the 40-60 mph that the trains normally average running through the urban portions of the system. Problems with the Tesoro Crossovers, which allow switching access to the oil refineries on the north end of the city, required a restricted speed of less than 20 mph between 1700 North and 700 South within the city, a distance of almost 4 miles encompassing the two busiest stations, North Temple and Salt Lake Central.

While this is sure to have caused serious frustration to many commuters, it is a good thing that these issues are coming to light now and not during a more deadly disaster. Hopefully this incident will allow UTA to improve the physical aspect of its emergency preparations to avoid future issues. Naturally some disasters cannot be prevented nor prepared for, but it is important to do everything possible to minimize future damage and delay.

By 12:20 pm on September 23 all Frontrunner services were on time again, thanks to the efforts of UTA crews. Response was immediate and repairs made quickly, a testament to the work of its employees.

The interesting thing about this process was that things really started going wrong at 3 am, more than 9 hours after the storm had passed. Generators had power at the Layton and Clearfield stations before 11 pm Thursday, and the MOW crews thought they had things under control until early Friday morning as signals began showing occupied blocks where there there were no trains, switches weren't responding and crossing gates remained unworkable. Once new crews were brought in after 7:00 work proceeded quickly, and as UTA's Twitter account announced, full service was restored a little after noon.

This is not the first time UTA has been affected by severe weather. A few years ago an intense windstorm collapsed the pedestrian overpass at the Farmington station. However, this is the first time that a storm has caused comparable damage to the system to result in so many service delays.

You can read about the tornado HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Good job getting an article up so fast about the craziness today. I was out at North Yard this morning and was watching; dumbfounded, as a Frontrunner train came crawling slowly through. I thought at first it was just slowing to stop at Warm Springs, but the news that I was within the speed restricted area explained what was up. It was a ridiculous sight to watch the train crawl so slowly.