The winter is one of the most demanding seasons for railway operators. Snow, ice and storms can affect the whole operation of the railway network. In order to get prepared for severe weather phenomema, the Austrian Federal Railroads (ÖBB) introduced a weather forecast alert system, called infra:wetter (infrastructure weather), in 2005. With this system in place, the national and regional operation centers, as well as the local employees, are able to plan their resources multiple days in advance for winter operations. „The most important thing is a clear and explicit directive for the employees, so that they know what to do when there is a prediction of 10cm fresh snow in the weather forecast system“, explains Stefan Eisenbach, meteorologist at the private weather service UBIMET and project manager for the ÖBB weather information system at UBIMET. At the Austrian Federal Railroads, all meteorological-dependent operational decisions are based on the internal weather system infra:wetter.
The Austrian weather system not only includes on-demand weather forecasts for the whole railway network, but also individual weather warnings for railway operators. „We implemented a 24-hour command center, where specially trained meteorologists declare weather warnings for infrastructure operators within Europe“, says Eisenbach. „This effort is necessary in order to provide absolutely reliable alerts“.
The weather forecasts are distributed daily by e-mail or fax to the responsible employees. Severe weather warnings and special alerts are sent directly and instantaneously via text message (SMS) to mobile phones. For this purpose, UBIMET invented a special distribution system, which allows them to send hundreds or thousands of messages within seconds.
A special case are large scale storm and flooding forecasts. When strong winds or floods are predicted, the Austrian railroad closes critical railway lines in advance and informs the passengers about alternative routes or bus services. “At first it was quite difficult for the responsible persons to trust the weather forecasts, but as soon as they saw how good the predictions of the weather systems were, it saved them a lot of trouble and avoidet cost intensive short-term damage limitation“, says Mr. Eisenbach.
Fire Risk and Flood Warning Systems
Since the introducion of infra:wetter, the system has grown rapidly. For critical railway lines, UBIMET calculates the actual fire risk on a meter base and how the fire risk will change within the coming days. Other new systems provide on-time analysis and predictions for flash floods. For critical bridges, there are special sensors which alarm the operation center when the water is approaching critical levels. „So if flooding is imminent, we send an alert that there is danger of damaged bridges or derailment and that the railway line has to be closed.“, explains Stefan Eisenbach. „At the moment, we are also involved in research projects about landslides, which is also an important topic for many infrastructure operators“.
Special high-speed services
A very new field are weather alert systems for high-speed rails. Wind, snow and ice can affect high-speed operation. In order to allow a secure operation, UBIMET observes the railway line for dangerous weather situations around the clock. Within a minute, the meteorologists provide warnings and a special phone hotline alows the operation center to speak with the meteorologist. On-site weather data from meteorolgical sensors and multiple hour or day forecasts for the high-speed line complements the alert system.
Lightning and electricity
UBIMET also provides lightning detection systems for critical electrical sites. “When there is a lightning strike in Europe, we know it within a minute and are able to set an alarm“, says Eisenbach. Furthermore, many railroads have electricity divisions for energy trading. New services like the calculation of the energy consumption on the coming day, allow for better trading and, as a consequence, cost reduction. Energy savings are also possible with better management of switch point heatings. „Here we have at the moment internal research projects of how an intelligent control of switch point heatings must look.“, says Stefan Eisenbach. „Next spring, we expect the first results and we are looking forward to working together with the railroads on a better algorithm“.
UBIMET is an international weather service, with headquarters in Vienna and branches till Australia. 50% of UBIMET is owned by RedBull, the other 50% is owned by private trusts. For infrastructure operators, like railways, UBIMET has developed special weather models, including those for the whole railway network, in a very high resolution.
“Our asset is the quality. We want to provide the best weather forecasts available.“, explains Dr. Michael Fassnauer. “As a completely private weather service, we work for our customers and will always search for good soultions to every problem, together with our partners“.