On the night of Jan. 28, the day on which the last of four big storms this winter began, employees of Consolidated Rail Corp. in Watertown, N.Y., received an emergency call from a local civial defense office.
Highways north to Evans Mills and Antwerp, N.Y., were blocked by drifting snow and air travel was impossible, the ConRail people ware told. Food supplies were needed for one community and medicine for the other. "Perhaps a train could get through?" the rail workers were asked.
Using a snowmobile and their own time, trainmaster John Kane, foreman of engines Joseph Bartelson and supervisor of track Frank Pullis got the medicine and a three-day supply of food. They got ConRail permission to operate a special snowplow train 12 miles north of Watertown to Evans Mills, where they delivered insulin, and another 14 miles to Antwerp, to unload the food.
On the same night, a separate crew from Watertown took a tank car of liquefied petroleum gas to Lowville, N.Y., where a distributing firm had run out of supplies used by residents for heating and cooking. ConRail crews in Rochester dug out 45 empty oil tank cars from the snow and moved them to Albany, where the cars will filled with petroleum and returned to the western part of New York City to supply Rochester Power & Light Co. and a hospital there.
Throughout the Council system and other railroads, and throughout this country's diversified transportation system, similar emergency operations have been launched this winter. All regions but the Southwest and West Coast were affected directly but the entire nation suffered from disruptions and delays in the supply pipeline for many business and industries.
As a spokesman for ConRail said last week, "This winter, the winter of '77, will be remembered as a record-breaker in many ways."
Transportation industry experts interviewed over the past two weeks said they have just started the process of adding up the costs, which they said are incalculate but very high. Most expect that higher freight rates, increased expenses and lower profits are inevitable for many transportation companies.
At the same time, the winter weather crisis has emphasized the value of a diverse transportation system. Among the major consequences of the snow, ice and cold have been the following:
Amtrak took a step unprecedented in railroad history: indefinite cancellations of some passenger trains. Many trains that were kept in service operated hours behind schedule and some cars featured below-freezing temperatures as heating systems failed. To repair frozen equipment, Amtrak sent passenger cars to New Orleans and Miami from Chicago and New York.
Rail freight yards became jammed with trains that couldn't be moved, switches became frozen and coal froze in hopper cars at major ports. With track conditions made worse and continued maintenance difficult, the Midwest and Northeast rail network rehabilitation effort has suffered a serious setback. There has been a rash of derailments since November involving freight and passenger trains, some of which were related to weather conditions. Rail firms aill have to spend more than projected on repairs and personnel, and that probably means higher freight rates.
The nation's inland waterway system has become tied up, with thousands of barget and tugs locked in ice on Midwest rivers, particularly the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois. Tons of salt rest in the bottoms of boats on the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., destined for urban areas where it has been needed for highways. Fertilizer and other agricultural shipments - principally corn and soybeans - also tied up on the ice.
Some airlines serving the Midwest have faced shortages of aviation fuel, leading them to seek permission to consolidate some flights. With all energy sources in heavy demand, the cost of such fuel is increasing - adding to the financial difficulties of some carriers.
With thousands of factories closed either by weather conditions or an absence of natural gas for heating and production, a major portion of the rail and trucking freight fleets are sitting loaded and idle, removing them from commerce until workers return for unloading. Such delays add to shipping costs and can be expected to show up in future consumer prices.
With normal transportation blocked, many shippers have switched to other transportation modes. Goods usually shipped along the Mississippi in barges mostly have been transferred to the railroads. Products that can't be shipped by rail have been loaded on trucks, which are in great demand. A major difficulty created by changes in normal transportation arrangements is added expense. For example, Cargill, Inc., has more than 170,000 tons of salt on barges in frozen rivers. J.V. Springrose, vice president for traffic, said salt has been switched to trucks but will cost more to ship to cities for highway use, which will become an added burden for municipal budgets.
Truck firms, particularly in the Middle Atlantic and southern states, found it difficult to move their fleets during the most bitter cold weather.
Diesel fuel for trucks normally contains additives designed for colder climates to prevent coagulation in engines in freezing weather. Trucks in such states as Minnesota often are plugged in to electric heating systems at night to keep engines warm enough to be started the next day. With none of these aids, truckers in normally warmer areas were in trouble. At one time, 50 per cent of McLean Trucking's fleet at Winston-Salem, N.C., was tied up on parking lots. Dispatchers for such interstate truckers as Pacific Intermountain Express and Roadway reported up to 15 per cent of their trucks halted by icy roads.
To be sure, there was nothing so dramatic this winter as the experience of 266 riders aboard a Southern Pacific City of San Francisco in January 1952, which was stranded by snow near Emigrant Gap in California. The passengers were stranded on the train for two days. And, in January 1872, riders aboard a Union Pacific mail train were tied up for nearly three weeks in snow drifts.
But those historic transportation tieups were isolated incidents compared with the broad sweep of Arctic like conditions this winter. "The consequences range from empty food shelves in Buffalo to plants that are shit down because coal is locked in the river ice to shipments of grain sitting at warehouses because the trains can't get through," Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams said last week.
In terms of long-range economic impact on one particular company, the winter of '77 perhaps can be best described by what happened to ConRail.
Of all large American business enterprises, the young Northeast and Midwest railroad apparently will suffer the most from what has happened, and there is a potential for even greater damage during thaw and refreezing in terms of rail facilities transporter of freight.
ConRail began business only last April 1, as a government -designed replacement for bankrupt regional railroads. Backed with billions of dollars in long-term government loans, ConRail supposedly will rebuild a delapidated rail system and eventually become profitable enough to stand on its own. The winter of '77 has delayed recovery but it is too early to tell for how long.
At least 15 per cent of ConRail's expected freight revenues has been lost in recent weeks because of the snow. In January alone, the railroad's workers put in 73,000 hours of overtime at about $10 an hour. Maintenance-of-way programs have been dislocated. The costs will be in the "tens of millions of dollars," a spokesman said last week, but the figures for December won't be calculated until March and the costs for January and February may not be known fully until April and May.
"The rampage of winter has had a very costly effect on ConRail": costs not anticipated by federal planners when they set up the company, noted ConRail chairman and chief executive Edward G. Jordan. "Our costs are up, not down, even though we're not moving freight or traffic as we should because our people under the most adverse conditions are out there working to do their utmost to make certain that nobody is shut down for transportation reasons."
The cost of clearing snow from tracks alone probably will be four to eight times what it cost ConRail's predecessors in any of the last six or seven years, he estimate.
Jordan expressed particular concern about what will happen over the next few weeks and months. Ice formed on the rail lines is "heaving the rail away from the track structure," and thaws may create damage to bridges and flooding. "We have problems we haven't even seen yet . . . We cannot put ourselves in a position where we allow rail service, if it is at all possible to protect it, to go downhill during the flood. We have got to find ways of protecting the structure," he told reporters recently.
As described by ConRail officials, the winter of '77 has involved four blizzard-type storms that literally ground the railroad to a halt. The first struck Nov. 30 and was concentrated in the Buffalo area, curtailing operations of ConRail and other lines there, particularly the Norfolk & Western. During the next few weeks, snow continued to fall and a second severe storm hit Buffalo on Dec. 30-31.
As during the first storm, rail yards stayed open under emergency procedures that included diverting some trains. A third storm, the most severe at that time, hit Jan. 15 and affected the entire ConRail system - from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean.
Yards in various cities were closed for short periods, and switching was slow because of frozen switches and deep drifts. No industrial switching was performed in the Buffalo area for three days. Some workers were moved to crisis points to help move freight trains.
Just when operations were improving, the worst storm of all hit ConRail and Northeast America on Jan. 28, "This time, the entire system was hit, and hit hard," ConRail chroniclers said. Temperatures dropped at Chicago from 19 to minus 10 in two hours; winds of 60 miles an hour produced a windchill of minus 67. Indianapolis fell next. Yards were shut and trains stalled for 24 hours as the storm progressed east across ConRail's network at a speed of about 40 miles an hour.
A crew on a freight train in Kentland, Ind., had to be rescued by a National Guard unit. In some areas, ConRail workers couldn't get to their jobs because highways were closed or local governments banned auto traffic. By 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, eight trains had become stalled in drifts in the Buffalo taller and up to 200 feet long. Delays and shutdowns existed through ConRail's lines.
Business resumed the next day outside the Buffalo area, and trains were rerouted through Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New Jersey and up and down the west shore of the Hudson River. An additional 40 locomotives were sent to Buffalo to help move stalled trains. Empty hopper and gondola cars were sent into yards to be loaded with snow and moved out.
At Monroe, Mich., supplies of electric power were threatened by frozen coal on belts that move coal to burners. ConRail rounded up cars of recently mined and unfrozen coal for delivery to a Detroit Edison generating station.
Warmer temperatures have eased the effects of the winter crisis on ConRail and other railroads in recent days. Highways are open, and most truckers are on the job and busy. Barges remain locked in ice but a growing concern is the potential for flooding when thaw starts. More storms are possible.
"I hope our awareness of the importance of the 'invisible service' of transportation does not melt with the coming spring or thaw with the ice," Secretary Adams said last week, summing up his survey of the winter damage. "We all have had a most convincing lessons of our dependence on transportation and how vulnerable our society is to a shutdown."