Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Snow and Water and Floods, oh my!

by Joshua Bernhard

I was told by the park rangers at Arches National Park that water is the most destructive natural force in existence; even if not absolute in that sense, it is still the bane of transportation and settlement in desert and mountain locales. The winter of 2016-2017 has been very strange, dumping snow at much higher levels than the average in the Rocky Mountains. Then, suddenly in late January, temperatures in the Great Basin soared from below freezing during the day to 65 degrees, weather more suited for March or April. Sudden spikes in temperature melt snow too quickly for it to settle, making snowpacks unstable in addition to simply increasing the amount of flowing water. Then, to make matters worse, rain hit the valleys, adding an extra layer of fresh snow at higher elevations; every variable was perfectly in line for catastrophic floods.

Everything collapsed at once it seemed. On February 7 there was a washout just east of Wells Nevada on the Shafter Sub; Amtrak's California Zephyr was reroute on the Lakeside Sub over the Lucin Cutoff through Ogden on that day. The following morning, though, conditions became worse and Amtrak suspended service, turning the eastbound CZ to return to California at Wells and the westbound CZ to return to Chicago at Salt Lake City. 21-Mile Dam near Montello, Nevada, burst under the sudden weight of floodwaters, and the stored water rushed out, wiping out roads, railroad, and inundating the town of Montello. This dam break shut down both the Lakeside and Shafter subs while UP began placing ballast trains in sidings in preparation for the repairs. Meanwhile, mudslides in the Sierra Nevadas (including at Doyle, California) shut down much of northern California and flooding in Central California caused a derailment of several cars. By Thursday November 9 the Lakeside, Shafter, Fresno and Roseville subdivisions were all closed; UP apparently gave up on trying to reroute trains out of Salt Lake City and let them pile up at Garfield.

(Photo and commentary courtesy Jacob Lyman) "When possible I try and chase every Amtrak train I get the opportunity to, especially since daylight Amtrak runs through Salt Lake City are such a rare occurrence. On February 9, 2017 I rushed from my classes at the university to get down trackside to watch as Amtrak Train #6, the eastbound California Zephyr departed Salt Lake. The delays were a result of the flood waters though out Nevada. I didn't stop to think though that it was going to get even worse over the next few days."

(Photo and commentary courtesy Jacob Lyman) "The full extent of the flood damage though became apparent the next day (February, 10) as I traveled with my sister driving home. I sat from the passenger seat of the car and declared to my sister I could see a traffic jam; however realizing that she thought I saw a jam up ahead on the road I had to quickly clarify I was seeing a traffic jam of trains. Here in the northern reaches of the Lynndyl Subdivision right before entering the Shaffter at Garfield Junction; where five trains lined up in a row, as a sixth train trundled past them. I had no doubt they were being held due to the flood waters, and I snapped a few pictures from the passenger seat with my cellphone. I was astonished, I had never before seen such a system delay concentrated all in one place. I learned later in the day the Shaffter was operating in limited capacity, as I saw a railfan post a video online of a stack train racing through the route (stack trains have been a rare sight on this route since the UP-SP merger). On Saturday (February, 11) when I passed through the area gone were the idle freight trains, but instead two ballast trains resting in the sidings. They were facing eastbound, and it made me wonder if they were called up from the ballast quarry near Milford. Either way the two ballast trains in the area made it clear, the railroad was preparing to go to war with nature itself."

By late that night the Shafter sub was reopened briefly although the condition of the route through the Sierras is still questionable. The Lakeside saw considerable damage on both the Nevada and Utah sides of the border; Box Elder News Journal posted pictures of minor washouts at Lucin that took out a grade crossing and signaling equipment on February 10. That same day BNSF made the decision to reroute their trackage rights trains south over the Sharp Subdivision rather than try to push them through Salt Lake City and the floods to the west; the Provo, Utah to Stockton, California Manifest (FHPVOS-10) left Provo on the morning of February 11 but rather than going to Stockton was forced to terminate at Barstow.

BNSF trains are never seen on UP's Sharp Subdivision, but it took catastrophic floods to make it happen. Here the FHPVOS-10 passes through Benjamin, Utah, rerouted to Barstow rather than its normal terminal of Stockton due to the closure of both the Lakeside and Shafter subdivisions out of Salt Lake City where it is normally routed. Even before making it all the way out of Provo it was met by floodwaters.

Another freak storm passed through on the night of the 10th however, dropping about an inch of snow in Utah Valley overnight but then warming up through the morning. Just before the FHPVOS pulled out of Provo Yard at 9:00 am it was met with a report that the Hobble Creek Bridge, less than a mile out, was blocked and flooding almost to the rails. The train was able to make it over the bridge on slow order, but water kept rising and after UP was able to push two more coal trains through right after the FHPVOS the water covered the railhead and the Sharp sub was closed for a few hours just before noon until Springville City could position heavy equipment to start fishing out the log jam that was causing the water backup. Even with water flowing under the bridge again by 12:30 the surrounding land was still 1-2 feet under water and nearby roads and industries were closed.

 This was the condition of the Hobble Creek Bridge at 9:30 am, just outside of Provo Utah on the Sharp Subdivision. The water had risen above the bottom of the bridge deck and was still rising; luckily Springville City, after the county sheriff, local police and a volunteer fire department had all responded to reports of the potential for damage. This location features four bridges in rapid succession: a street, the Sharp subdivision, Intermountain Power's car repair yard, and another street.

Once the water on the road reached two feet the street was closed.

Springville City was proactive and sent down equipment to start clearing out the log jam on the bridge by noon. They were able to bring water levels back down to below the bridge height, although only a few inches below the bottom of the deck.
Westbound freight trains continued to pile up, extending outward from Salt Lake City up the Salt Lake subdivision to Clearfield; however, while the damage caused across the UP system is significant and will take a long time to properly rectify, quick work has been able to prevent further closures and the fact that the Shafter Subdivision was reopened so quickly, even if under very limited operation, is a testament to the railroad employees who dove in to fix the problem. We still have a few weeks to see what else this winter will throw at us but hopefully nothing as extreme as this past week.

No comments:

Post a Comment