Railroads & Locomotives History An engineer’s life: Snow time on BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision

An engineer’s life: Snow time on BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision

By Michael Sawyer | December 6, 2023

From my seat … all I see is a big wall of snow

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It’s snow time on BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision

engineer's view of plowing
BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision: A view from my office chair, with the right-side big wing out. We are plowing the siding at Scenic Eastward at 11:07 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 9, 2008. Michael Sawyer

Working in the snow of the Cascade Mountains was always special, until you had to work in it. I have joked for years that at one point I loved skiing until I had to pack my third knuckle to replace a broken one in deep snow.

Both of the following stories are from BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision of the Northwest Division at the station of Scenic — the west end of the 8-mile Cascade Tunnel. The BNSF Scenic Sub runs for about 155 miles from Seattle east to Wenatchee, Wash. Wintertime railroading was and is challenging work.

Knuckle buster

One morning in my head brakeman days, my engineer and I were sitting at east Scenic waiting for our turn in the Cascade Tunnel. While both of us were in a somewhat relaxed condition, I looked up and noted that we had a clear block (green signal). I told the engineer, and without looking up he said, “Let me know when we have the fan lights.”

The tunnel has fans at the east end that blow about a 30-mph wind through the tunnel so the locomotives can breathe. The fan lights are mounted on a pole and will start flashing when it is OK to enter. In about 10 minutes we got the lights, my engineer sat up, kicked the air off, and attacked the throttle — seconds later we lost the air.

It was about daybreak, I turned in my seat to see a two-car separation about seven cars behind our power. Being young at the time, I made quick work of walking back in a fresh foot of snow to change out the broken knuckle. After the train was back together and I was thinking about what went wrong, a smile started to cross my face. After I climbed back aboard, my engineer was visibly upset and trying to figure out what had happened.

I looked over and said, “Next time call the helpers before we pull.” We had manned helpers that morning, and they were still anchored (brakes set) to the rail. When the slack reached the helpers, it was too much for the knuckle I had to replace.

Fast plowing

This second story is from the winter of 2007 and 2008.  It was and became one of the heaviest snowpacks I can remember. I was the regular engineer on the “Hill” work train for just short of 3 years at the time. Our work train got a lot of plow practice.

Working the Skykomish Snow Dozer was always a treat, for about 2 hours. Working the plows was cool when you could just plow with the nose wing down, you could plow faster than the posted speed with the idea of throwing the snow as far from the tracks as you could, otherwise with the big plow wings out, it was 3 to 5 mph the rest of the day. After about 20 minutes of that, I was ready to call it day.

As noted, we could exceed posted speed at the direction of the Roadmaster. This trip I had my regular crew. We had a General Electric Leasing B39-8 (LMX) locomotive on the point. (GEs do not load fast, but when they do, look out.) Anyway, starting at the west switch at Scenic I took the clear block, meaning I was lined up into the Cascade Tunnel at east Scenic.

As we started to roll, my conductor calls out, “Come on Mikey, it’s your time to shine.” My reply was, “Wait for it,” … I was watching the amp meter load slowly, then it pegged out and away we went. From my seat, once we get plowing at speed all I see is a big wall of snow. My eyes are my crew inside the plow in front of me. I had total trust in my crew — you have too.

The speed limit was 25 mph at Scenic, as I passed over (more like hit) the east switch, the plow bucked and rock and rolled (they rode hard at speed). My conductor gave me an excited, “That’ll do, that’ll do.” By the time I got stopped, I was just inside the tunnel at bay 21. I had passed over the switch at 52 mph.

The reason I remember this trip — besides the speed — was that half-way up the main I noticed a tall gentleman trying to hide behind a power pole with a RB67 camera looking down into it to take a photo and then getting covered with a foot of snow. Then a little further up the main we passed the grade crossing at Scenic. It led to a snow parking area where two older gentlemen were watching, waiting to take pictures. As I sped past, the snow hit them and they rolled across the parking lot like two bowling pins. It’s snow time!

2 thoughts on “An engineer’s life: Snow time on BNSF Railway’s Scenic Subdivision

  1. I know this was a BNSF article but if you want to watch a series of videos of the Snow Blowers, search You Tube for “Avalanche on the Mountain,” a story about UP Rotaries going over Donner Pass and the problems encountered. Lots of video from inside the plows and flangers and also the tracked dozers clearing space for the snow to go in one of the first big blizzards on the Pass in the 2000’s. Its in several parts so make sure you see them all. Its something else to see the old SP rotaries throwing now 100 feet or so and hearkens back to the day when the citizens of Truckee or Roseville knew the “Ghost Trains” (by their steam whistles at night) were headed out to battle the pass and open the railroad again.

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