Freight Car Friday – Fighting the Snow

17 02 2012

We’ll take a little break from revenue freight equipment this week to take a look at some specialized rail equipment that is standing at the ready on railroads all across the snow belt this time of year. Railroads don’t get snow days. Although it takes more snow to slow down railroad operations than our roads, when the big storms hit railroads may have thousands of miles of tracks and switches to clear.


wedge plow

Early wedge plows were converted from older equipment. A plow needed to be heavy to combat the heavy stresses involved.

The first line of defense on the railroads is the snow plow. The standard plows mounted on the front of most mainline locomotives can often handle the routine light snows, but for deeper falls and drifts, larger wedge plows are needed. Early plows were often not much more than a large wedge mounted on the front of a locomotive or a freight car. In the latter, the car would need to be ballasted heavily to prevent it from derailing or being crushed between the snow bank and the locomotive.

These primitive plows evolved into larger cars with strong frames and quarters for the crew. A device called a flanger was attached below the floor to cut a groove on the inside of the rail for the flanges of the wheels. This device had to be raised to clear switches, crossings and bridges – all of which were of course hidden by a blanket of snow! The operator had to know the railroad very well. Different plow designs also evolved for single and double track routes. A double track plow directs snow only to one side to prevent burying the other track.

The Rotary


For the heaviest snows, the rotary plow is the ultimate defense.

Snow plows can be very effective, but some climates are capable of putting down a snowfall that even they can’t clear. For these massive storms, the ultimate in snow-fighting equipment is the rotary snowplow. Like a giant snowblower, these machines literally chew their way through drifts taller than the machine itself and throw the snow hundreds of feet from the tracks.

Early plows were steam-powered. Today they are powered by powerful diesels. The rotaries are not self-propelled but must be pushed by a team of locomotives. A dedicated tender (often an old steam locomotive tender or now a tank car) is also coupled to the plow.

Clearing the Yards

snow jet

The snow jet clears switches quickly.

Clearing hundreds of miles of buried mainline is an obvious challenge. Just as great a struggle but far less often considered is the problem of snow in yards. Not only can there be miles of track within the yard, but hundreds of switches. These get packed with snow and ice, rendering them useless or dangerous. At first, the only answer was to clear the points and flangeways by hand. Later, railroads installed switch heaters to continually melt the snow away. These used to be kerosene pots. Now, natural gas-powered forced air machines can be seen along main lines. Railroads would also sometimes use steam from the locomotive to melt away the ice.

As steam became a less common option, railroads found more creative ways to clear the snow from switches. One of the most ingenious is the snow jet. It is what it sounds like – a jet engine mounted on a flatcar and aimed at the track. The blast from the engine blows snow and ice (and anything else that gets in the way) clear of the switches. To prevent the car from being propelled through the track, special track clamps are engaged to hold it to the rail. A locomotive can also be placed behind the car.

Tunnels Too

ice breaker

Ice breaking cars take the abuse of icicles so freight and passenger trains don't have to.

Trains might be able to escape snow in a tunnel, but not ice. Icicles hanging from the ceiling of a tunnel can cause costly damage to equipment and loads like automobiles on open racks. For passenger trains with dome cars, the damage could be even more costly.

To safely clear the ice, railroads can mount sturdy bars on the roof of a locomotive or car. Often, railroad convert older hopper cars by adding a steel frame. The car may be ballasted for better traction. Ice is knocked into the hopper where it eventually melts and drains out the doors. These cars are often assigned to specific yards or locations near the tunnels they are designed to clear.

The prototypes for all of these interesting cars may rest in yards for months at a time, but we can bring the excitement out on our layouts whenever we’d like. And we don’t even have to put on our hat and gloves!



One response

17 02 2012
Alfonso Llana

Since I live iun a country without snow this type of equipment is always particularly interesting. Thanks for posting this information

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