Winter and railroads. Something that every year at least a few places around the country requires specialized equipment to keep things moving fluid and the lines cleared of snow. This winter has seen plows and rotaries up and running in the northern Plains and spreaders and flangers working in the Sierra's. This would also be a year that the Pacific Northwest had some snow removal action.
This past Thursday was a special day on the BNSF Scenic Sub in Washington State. It was the first usage of the BNSF snow dozer in the past few years after a near record snowfall for the season in the Cascades. It had been a few years since the snow dozer was used on Stevens Pass due to lighter than normal snowfalls the previous winters. The snow that fell during those years, the railroad was able to use passing train traffic and snow regulators to keep the tracks clear for the most part. BNSF keeps a rotary based at Wenatchee, WA but old heads have said the last time it was used in the Cascades was the Winter of 1968, nearly a half century ago. This year was a bit different as early winter snow was added to with a heavy snowfall earlier in January. The areas on the east side of the Pass at the sidings of Berne and Merritt needed special attention with the snow dozer to "big wing" the sides of the right of way to clear the build up of snow. Adorned with a BN herald and decked out in Cascade Green, the only think missing in thinking this was a scene from the 1970's was the orange of the BNSF units and the inclusion of safety vests on the employees.
That early Thursday morning had numerous crews arriving in Skykomish, WA early to get set up for the days of operation. A set of BNSF geeps arrived two days previous to provide power for the snow dozer. "Yes! Today is the day, we will be big-winging up at Berne this morning" the Foreman told me after getting out of his truck in the pre-dawn hours. "Its been awhile since we've last ran this. I live for this!" he says. As the morning wore on, one BNSF truck became, two, then four, then seven. All stopping in to get a look and re-familiarizing themselves with the dozer.
After a few adjustments were made to the wings of the dozer, a call to the dispatcher was made to try to get some time on the main line to head east. "It will be after a few", the dispatcher replied. What was supposed to be a 9am on duty time, ended up being just before noon before the dozer was on its way east up the Pass.
Looking more like a passenger train than a work train, the dozer was jammed full of Hi-Vis Orange as it accelerated towards the Cascade Tunnel. This was to be not only a work assignment for the crews, but also a chance to see the unit at work for others. Tailing behind the dozer was even more people in a highrailer and a rail mounted excavator. At Scenic the dozer went into the siding to await yet another westbound train to exit Cascade tunnel.
After the westbound went by and a short exhaust flush from the bore, they were off again east to the deeper snow and where the work was to begin. After clearing the main and siding at Berne, it was off to Merritt where they would clean along the main line. As the afternoon wore on, the crews hours of service grew shorter but additional work was needed to be done. After clearing the main at Merritt, the timing required the work crew to return west to the Skykomish base before reaching the 12 hr. federal work hour limit.
After a quick return across the Pass, the crews departed as quickly as they arrived that morning. According to the Foreman, the dozer operated without any issue and it was clear that sitting idle for the past few years, it was ready to work at a moments notice. What we experienced that day was a sneak peek in what it takes to keep railroads running around the clock in all weather conditions.