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Midwest Roads and Rails Buckle Under Intense Heat

Wed August 03, 2011 - Midwest Edition
Margery A. Beck

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) The intense heat wave that enveloped much of the country caused metal railroad rails and asphalt roads in some Midwestern states to expand and buckle, forcing transportation officials to scramble to make repairs and causing rail operators to pay extra-close attention to the safety of their tracks.

Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad said July 20 that the heat has affected the operations of its entire northern division and that it’s having workers inspect its tracks up to twice a day.

“In extreme heat, you get a phenomenon called a ’track buckle’ or ’sun kink,’” Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said. “When you get extreme heat and the metal rail wants to expand, it looks for a weak spot in the track structure itself to do that.

“What will literally happen is, the track will bend in either direction at the weakest point of the track structure.”

Crews often cut out sections of track, rejoin the ends and weld the track back together to handle the heat-related expansion, Davis said, which has kept the railroad from having any serious problems with rail kinking during the heat wave.

But the heat has forced the railroads to slow its trains by 10 to 20 mph, Davis said.

“It may reduce the efficiency of the overall operations on a corridor, but the temporary reductions of efficiencies outweigh the possibility of a derailment,” Davis said.

Excessive heat also will cause concrete to expand, which can lead to buckling along roads, bridges, sidewalks and other thoroughfares made of the material.

The intense heat in Oklahoma was blamed for sending at least one motorist to the hospital. On July 10, a section of U.S. Highway 412 buckled in Pawnee County, causing a motorcyclist to go airborne. He was seriously injured, but survived.

At a major intersection along the same highway in Enid, Okla., the heat caused the road to heave on July 16. And on July 18, repairs began on a heavily traveled road just north of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City after part of the road buckled.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation spokesman David Meuser said no records are kept of heat-related road issues, but “it’s a problem all over the state.”

“It is totally unpredictable,” Meuser said. “It can happen anywhere. Sometimes it just is almost completely like an explosion and there’s nothing you can do.”

Iowa has seen dozens of incidents of roads buckling, or “blowups,” because of the heat, said Dena Gray-Fisher, spokeswoman of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Repairs were being made on Interstate 380 in eastern Iowa between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids after sizzling temperatures caused the pavement to buckle. Gray-Fisher said at least seven of those incidents resulted in one or more lanes of traffic being closed.

Tim McClung of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation said at least two airports have reported buckling concrete runways, shutting down both.

The municipal airport at Corning in southwest Iowa shut down after “blowups” were discovered along the runway.

About 80 mi. northeast, the airport in Ankeny, Iowa, also saw its main runway buckle earlier this week, McClung said. It reopened after repairs.

“Obviously, maintaining your concrete always helps, but gosh, when it gets this hot, all you can do is keep an eye on it,” McClung said.

Adding to the problem is the amount of rain some parts of the region received before the heat wave descended, because water trapped under or inside concrete also will expand in the extreme heat.

“The wet weather in parts of the state combined with the extreme heat is a recipe for pavement blow ups,” said John Selmer, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s statewide operations bureau.

Several incidents of highway buckling and heat-softened asphalt sticking to vehicle tires have been reported in Nebraska, state Department of Roads district engineer Tom Goodbarn said.

Goodbarn said it’s not just that it’s hot but that the duration of the heat has affected roads and bridges.

“We like to at least see it cool down a little bit in the evenings. The longer it stays hot, the more everything expands.”

“It can cause some traffic hazards,” he said. “If somebody hits a blowup that just happened, it can be quite an impact.”

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