Extreme heat threatens BART, other rail systems

Over the last 40 years, U.S. rail systems have experienced some 2,100 derailments due to extreme heat events warping or degrading the rails. Now, the pace is quickening.

Five weeks ago, two BART cars derailed between Pleasant Hill and Concord stations, causing minor injuries. The tracks got so heated that they couldn't support the weight of the train.

"The combination of the rails, the speed, the weight, with the high heat, then you start to get these kinks," said rail engineer and expert Professor Paul Chinowsky.

He also adds that BART is hardly the first rail line to experience this.

"This has been a risk ever since railroads were put in," said the professor.

Back in 2017, BART ordered A-trains to slow on a very hot day, but no formal procedures were instituted. Since this recent derail, BART has imposed a slowdown to half speed rule in areas that exceed 100 degrees.

"The slow-down rule is absolutely essential," said Chinowsky.

The game changer is global warming, which has led to higher heat events that last longer, especially in the southwest and California.

"When you start having entire months of days that are getting into the 90, 95, 100, 105, in some places, then you're in a whole different situation," said Chinowsky.

This matter is so serious that the Federal Railroad Administration awarded the Mineta Transportation Institute a $4.6 million grant for a two-year research and training program to show all U.S. rail systems how to deal extreme weather events.

"So that changes or adjustment can be made in real time to decrease risk," said Karen Philbrick, the Mineta Transportation Institute Executive Director.

The other issue is aging tracks, which were originally designed for a different expectation of temperatures and length of heat waves.

"A piece of rail, when you're getting into 50 years, you're at end of lifetime for that rail," said Chinowsky.

Though BART has replaced a lot of rails, its 50th Anniversary is in September.

"We are expecting temperature to continue to rise. So, it's incredibly imperative that we address this now," said Philbrick.

Infrastructure needs constant maintenance.

"We are talking about really the end of life over the majority of our physical rail system," said Chinowsky.