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A railroad study in snow

By Bob Lettenberger | February 6, 2024

| Last updated on February 8, 2024

An exploration of snow, winter, and railroads

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A railroad study in snow

Passenger train winds through a snow scene. Railroad study in snow
A VIA Rail passenger train winds through a spectacular Canadian snow scene. David Maiers

On Jan. 15, 1885, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, a farmer from Jericho, Vt., became the first person to successfully photograph a single snow crystal — a snowflake. Bentley, in his study of snow, went on to capture images of more than 5,000 individual snowflakes, finding that, in fact, no two were alike. The crystals Bentley captured were beautiful, serene works of natural art.

Mother Nature can present the wonder of snow as a picturesque scene, or she can gather several billion snowflakes, whip them into a frenzy on a frigid wind, raising havoc for all with the fury of the flakes. Post snowstorm, we break out the shovels, gloves, plows, and snowblowers to herd the flakes off roads, driveways and sidewalks. The railroads use the exact same tools, albeit significantly larger, to dispatch the snowflakes from the tracks.

Come along for our study in snow — railroad style.

Wyoming October

Black and white image of a freight train in a snow storm. Railroad study in snow
October, in most parts of the United States, is a time of fall color and preparing for the coming winter. Not so on the high plains of Wyoming where a winter storm can turn everything white by early October. Such is the case here at Lookout, Wyo., where a Union Pacific stack train battles snow and high winds to get through an early-season blizzard. Paul Garger

A capital storm

A snow plow train with the Washington Monument in the background. Railroad study in snow
“Snowmageddon,” as the storm was dubbed, blasted the mid-Atlantic states with record snowfall on Feb. 5-6, 2010. The Washington, D.C., area was left with 24 to 32 inches of snow. CSX sent a plow train along the RF&P Subdivision on Feb. 7, led by GE ES40DC No. 5278. The train is bucking drifts in the three-track territory around Crystal City, Va. Little did anyone know, that on Feb. 9-10 another storm would pile an additional foot of snow on the area. Mike Schaller

Dawn plow

Jordan Spreader snow plow working with sun rising in background. Railroad study in snow
The sun transitions the morning of Jan. 4, 2011, from shades of blue and cold to shades of red and cold. The mercury is holding down around 12 degrees below zero. With an early morning call, the Red River Valley & Western’s snowplow blasts through the drifted flakes that have blown over the short line near Dwight, N.D. Robert Jordan


Black and white photo of rotary snow plow blades. Railroad study in snow
This is the business end of former Union Pacific rotary snow plow No. 900081, now part of the collection exhibited at the National Museum of Transportation, located outside St. Louis. Built in 1966, by the UP, the rotary blade is 12 feet across. With wings extended, it can cut a path through the snow up to 14 feet wide. No. 900081 is largest of its type built. It is 56 feet, two inches long, stands 17 feet tall and weighs in at 376,000 pounds. Peter Preston

We haven’t seen you in years

Orange rotary snow plow working through a deep drift. Railroad study in snow
You know the snow is bad when a member of the rotary club is called out to deal with the problem. After two early-January 2024 snowstorms pummeled Kansas and Nebraska with nearly two feet of flakes combined with high winds and temperatures dipping to -23 degrees, BNSF Railway brought out three different rotary plows to free stalled trains and open various mainlines. On Jan. 14, 2024, rotary No. 972558 works through a grade crossing between Seward and Hampton, Neb. It was the first time since 2009 that BNSF called for the rotaries in Nebraska. Samuel Broderson

Can you see the train?

Train creating a huge snow cloud as it hits a drift. Railroad study in snow
Believe me, there really is a train in there. Can’t you see it? Ontario Southland GP9u No. 8235, still wearing Canadian Pacific colors, blasts through drifted snow with a short train on Dec. 28, 2022. You can see the train beyond the snow cloud. I told you there was a train there. Kyle Stefanovic

Snow speed

A green Jordan Spreader running through snow. Railroad study in snow
From a basic-box cab atop the Jordan Spreader, the crew keeps a watchful eye on the track ahead. The plow train is running southbound on the New England Central Railroad’s Palmer Subdivision at Cornish, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2011. The Jordan Spreader is the invention of Oswald F. Jordan, a road master for the Canada Southern Railway, which became a New York Central subsidiary. Jordan patented his invention in 1890. Kevin Burkholder

Still the best?

Steam locomotive and snow plow.
“Russell Snow Plows have now been most successfully used in all kinds of snow … they are now the most generally used, as well as the most modern and efficient device in existence, for clearing railway tracks of snow,” proclaimed the company’s 1898 catalog. On Feb. 14, 2014, the Strasburg Rail Road was again illustrating this proclamation as its Russell plow No. 66, propelled by former Norfolk & Western No. 475, a 1906 Baldwin, works to clear the line after a nor’easter dumped nearly 20 inches of snow across eastern Pennsylvania. Christopher Pollock

One tough job

Lone man sweeping out railroad switch
A couple inches of fresh snow is being cleaned from a switch in Norfolk Southern’s ex-Virginian Elmore Yard at Mullens, W.Va., on Feb. 9, 2010. Up at the crest of Clarks Gap, which the Hill Runs must defeat in order to reach Princeton, W.Va., there is more than 18 inches of snow. Needless to say, there will be no Hill Runs today. Brent A. Harrison

Flanger extra

Black steam engine and pulling a snow plow
Snow has been a challenge on the Denver & Rio Grande narrow-gauge lines since their beginning in 1870. The railroad equipped its smaller narrow-gauge locomotives with plow blades that did well to push snow off the rails. The blades could not reach in between the narrow rails to remove the packed snow and ice. To solve the problem, the D&RG, in 1885, introduced a plow car that would pick up the between-rail snow, tossing it to the side. Today, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge has updated a D&RG flanger. On Feb. 18, 2019, D&SNG 2-8-2 K-28 No. 476 leads a flanger extra north of Durango, Colo. Jerry Day

A snowflake’s perspective

Looking down at a Jordan Spreader and diesel locomotive
Breaking up the drifts and making room for more snow — that’s the mission of Canadian National work extra No. X56791-21 on Feb. 21, 2019, south of Manchester, Iowa, along the Cedar Rapids Subdivision. The Jordan Spreader is an ex-Illinois Central Gulf unit, No. 101403, with C40-8W No. 2186 pushing. Craig Williams

Snow removal

Two men shoveling snow off of a diesel locomotive.
It’s going to take more than a snow brush to clean this one off. Two employees of the Bloomer Shippers Line Railroad work with scoop shovels to clean off the low nose of GP9 No. 7591. Along with GP10 No. 7504, the pair of locomotives was used to bust snowdrifts near Cropsey, Ill., on Jan. 10, 2014. Cropsey is about half way between Kankakee and Bloomington, Ill., on flat farmland, which is ideal drifting territory. Steve Smedley

Keeping warm

Passenger train in snow passing a tower with flames from switch warmers.
Cold, snow, and switches don’t mix well. As an Amtrak train passes Metra’s Tower A-2 — Western Avenue, Chicago — on Feb. 1, 2014, the switch heaters blaze in hopes of keeping the multi-track junction fluid. This is where Metra’s Milwaukee District North and West Lines cross Metra’s Union Pacific West Line. Sayre C. Kos

Into the cold winter night

Passenger train traveling into sunset. Railroad study in snow
It has been tough sledding for Amtrak’s Empire Builder during the current snow season. Cold, snow, and high winds have caused delays and mechanical problems starting with an early-season snowstorm that hit Montana in October. On Jan. 11-12 a blizzard dumped nearly 18 inches of snow across parts of the Upper Midwest. The Empire Builder, along with other Amtrak trains were canceled. On Jan. 20 the first Builder in since Jan. 10 departs Chicago heading westbound into a cold setting sun. Bob Johnston
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