News & Reviews News Wire Track conditions on short stretch of main line in Nevada prompt UP to seek permission to temporarily deactivate signals and CTC

Track conditions on short stretch of main line in Nevada prompt UP to seek permission to temporarily deactivate signals and CTC

By Bill Stephens | January 23, 2023

Union Pacific blames harsh weather for problems on Winnemucca Subdivision, but unions claim the railroad has deferred maintenance and spread its track and signal workers too thin

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WASHINGTON – Union Pacific has asked the Federal Railroad Administration for permission to temporarily deactivate the centralized traffic control on a 13.4-mile section of its Winnemucca Subdivision in Nevada, saying that windblown sand and soil has made the signal system unreliable.

UP says it can’t make repairs until spring because the track structure is frozen due to a wave of heavy rainstorms that were followed by freezing temperatures and snow. The former Western Pacific main line carries an average of six trains per day — five of which typically require recrews due to signal problems related to the contaminated track structure.

And that’s been causing delays to train sets that deliver Midwestern corn to Foster Farms, the California poultry producer that twice last year sought Surface Transportation Board emergency service orders directing UP to prioritize its grain trains.

UP told the FRA last week that the signal problems are jeopardizing its ability to expeditiously serve Foster Farms, as required under a December order from the STB. UP wants to operate the troubled section of the Winnemucca Subdivision under track warrant control for up to six months once the CTC and block signals are deactivated.

Union Pacific’s Winnemucca Subdivision is shown in red on this map from a 2005 timetable. UP

Unions representing signal and maintenance of way workers say that UP itself — not bad weather — is to blame for the track and signal problems.

“UP acts as if the service problems are something that happened to it. In actuality, these problems are a direct result of deliberate decisions by UP to cut staffing and inspection, maintenance and repair of its infrastructure in order to reduce its Operating Ratio,” Randy Quinn Norman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, told the STB last week.

The unions claim that a combination of underinvestment in track maintenance and a reduction in the signal and maintenance-of-way workforces are responsible for the conditions on UP lines linking Ogden, Utah, with central California.

Overall since 2017, UP has reduced its signal maintainer workforce by 31% and its maintenance of way ranks by 16%, according to the unions. But on the Winnemucca Subdivision there’s been a 30% reduction of maintenance-of-way forces, the unions say.

The unions also say UP has not properly undercut the ballast in years and has failed to maintain sand fences designed to keep sand from fouling the tracks.

UP told the FRA that it has taken numerous preventative measures, including undercutting, performing surface work in August, and removing sand and dirt with a jet blower.

The railroad took issue with the claims made by the unions.

“We do not agree with the BRS’ assessment and welcome the opportunity to share our inspection and maintenance practices with the STB. Union Pacific is committed to safe and efficient operations over the Winnemucca Subdivision,” railroad spokeswoman Kristen South says.

The FRA’s safety board meets monthly to evaluate waiver requests, but it was unclear when the agency might act on UP’s petition. Railroads regularly submit waiver petitions to the FRA, including for permanent or temporary deactivation of signal systems, an agency spokesman says.

Historically the FRA has denied requests to deactivate signal systems for maintenance-related reasons, according to people familiar with the matter.

The unions, in a separate filing with the STB regarding UP’s use of embargoes, say the condition of the track in Nevada is an indication of broader maintenance issues at the railroad. “The Winnemucca Subdivision is just the leading edge of the impact of starving the track, right-of-way, and signal system,” Richard Edelman, the unions’ lawyer, told the STB.

22 thoughts on “Track conditions on short stretch of main line in Nevada prompt UP to seek permission to temporarily deactivate signals and CTC

  1. UPDATED INFO The Brenner pass base tunnel between Austria and Italy is being built now.It will be double tracked,electrified,34 miles long.the cost is 8 billion euros ,in US dollars 8.8 billion.How can it cost 6 billion to build a 1.2 mile tunnel in San Fran. Could UP BUILD A Single track tunnel under Donner pass and be cost effective?

  2. Is it cost effective to keep the feather river line operational between Winnemuca,NV and Keddie wye.Is there any online traffic on this stretch.UP could lengthen sidings and/or double track stretches between Winnemuca and Reno and send everything over Donner pass.The Swiss and Austrians are building more long tunnels under the alps, and the cost seems to be reasonable!

    1. Online customers between Winnemucca and Keddie include the Sierra Army Depot at Herlong and interchange with the Quincy Railroad at Quincy Jct. While the Feather River Canyon is a PITA during the winter due to flooding and slides, it’s till an engineering marvel in that it allows a crossing of the Sierra Nevada at only a 1% grade, much less than Donner Pass. Many of the trains which operate via Portola are the heavier unit trains (such as grain). As they are generally limited to 45 or 50 MPH anyway, and the maximum speed for freight trains in unsignalled territory is 49 MPH, I imagine the point UP is trying to make is that taking the CTC out of service so the trains can run at 45 MPH versus restricted speed (assuming the problem is causing all signals to be at stop in the problem area) will actually improve running times. While I can’t comment on whether UP is negligent on allowing this situation to occur, this short-term change seems logical, especially on a line with such few trains (and at 13.4 miles, it could be just between two control points such as Gerlach to Trego, which is 13.3 miles).

  3. Start taking bets on how long it will be before UP’s house of cards collapses. The STB, FRA, and, most importantly, UP stockholders need to do everything in their power to light a fire under UP management or replace them before they drive the whole thing over a cliff. There has to be somebody there who can see beyond the next quarterly P&L statement. Failing that, it’s a good time for Elon Musk to step in and right the ship. I wonder how many of his manufacturing facilities for SpaceX and Tesla are served by UP?

  4. If a railroad can not maintain its right of way, one has to question management practices. Both SP & WP in their day faced severe operating conditions and managed to keep trains moving.
    Yet with current management, when one looks under the hood, one finds all sorts of problems. Ala Penn Central. The STB should ask UP for a list of all slow orders. and the length of when those slow orders came into effect.(If management knows).

  5. Amtrak #5 & #6 are also falling victim to this delay. My recommendation to rail pax at this time is to avoid trains that run on UP as the host.

    1. No, they’re not. Look at the map. The line in question is the ex-WP line (in red) via Gerlach and Portola. Amtrak operates on the ex-SP line via Lovelock and Sparks.

  6. And yet….”Union Pacific reports record revenue and profits for 2022″.
    How can they boast about making ‘record’ revenue and profits when nothing works?

  7. Ever get stuck in the mud 40 miles from any road inthe middle of the night without any food, water low on fuel… and no cigarettes… lmfao ha haha

  8. Everyone was wondering what was going to fall when they couldn’t use embargoes anymore as a front. Now you got the answer.

    Now we cant maintain the signals, we want an exception.

    So what is next, a PTC exception?

  9. “UP told the FRA that it has taken numerous preventative measures” such as furloughing signal maintainers and track maintainers. Those will eventually prevent all train movements. Think of the next Penn Central.

  10. This is just getting ridiculous! The UP was supposed to be the railroad all other railroads wanted to be. Instead all other railroads are just pointing and laughing or peeking through blinders to see what happens next. What is happening with them? And of course this happens to be the route they use to service Foster Farms. Anybody else thinking this is revenge for Foster Farms reporting them?

    1. I don’t think it’s revenge but I do think it’s just another excuse by UP for not getting there shipment there on time. You know don’t blame us blame mother nature.

  11. 13.4 miles? Any grade crossings? If not then signal maintainers not needed for section.. Sign UP is slowly sinking into th mud. All the washouts of west coast is not helping.

    1. Signal maintainers are needed for the CTC signals…or did you miss the part that this section of line is governed by CTC?

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