The Battle for the Mountain
I often receive many questions regarding snow fighting operations on Donner Pass. In this article, we will take a look at how the Union Pacific Railroad keeps the infamous Donner Pass Route open during fierce winter storms. So if you’re planning on visiting Donner Pass this winter, check this out!
Since the beginning, winter on Donner Pass has been a challenge for the railroad. During the original construction of the transcontinental railroad, work crews for the Central Pacific Railroad had to contend with 44′ of snow in one winter season (1866). Snow storms dramatically slowed construction and cost the railroad a tremendous amount of money.
In 1952, Southern Pacific’s “City of San Francisco” (a premier passenger train from Chicago, IL to the S.F. Bay Area) became stranded during a snow storm on Donner Pass. Over 200 passengers and crew members were forced to endure a cold night aboard the train until they could be evacuated to the highway. It took Southern Pacific crews several days to rescue the train and clear the railroad from snow.
In 2011, a fierce winter storm caused an avalanche near Shed 10 (Eagle Lakes). The avalanche buried a flanger (snow fighting train), forcing to the crew members to climb out of a window and seek rescue. After several days utilizing the rotary snow plows, the Union Pacific Railroad was able to clear the tracks and open the route.
Fierce winter storms have made the Donner Pass Route infamous among railroaders. The route is commonly referred to as the “snowiest mainline” on Union Pacific’s system. Every winter, the railroad utilizes special “snow fighting” crews and equipment to clear the tracks and keep the mainline open. Let’s take a look at how they operate.
The Snow Fighters
The snow fighting effort along the Donner Pass Route is headquartered in Truckee, California. “Truckee Snow HQ” is staffed by hard working railroaders who have experience along the Donner Pass Route. They coordinate snow fighting operations, working closely with the Roseville Yard and the Omaha dispatchers. During the winter months, snow fighting equipment is staged in Truckee. Crews monitor weather conditions, rail traffic and maintenance needs from this headquarters office.
The railroad’s original solution for snow fighting was by utilizing “snow sheds”. The Central Pacific Railroad constructed over 40 miles of wooden snow sheds along the Donner Pass Route. These sheds would shield the tracks from snow storms and avalanches.
While snow sheds were a great concept and helped keep the railroad open for many years, they had drawbacks. Often, the blowing snow would create large snow drifts at the shed portals. These were difficult to remove due to the confined space inherent with a snow shed. The sheds would also create ice due to the snow melting, seeping into the shed and then refreezing. During the summertime, the large wooden sheds created a considerable fire risk. Dry, wooden boards next to railroad operations were a perfect recipe for fire. Lastly, the snow sheds were despised by passengers. The sheds blocked the scenic views for passengers as they ventured through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As snow removal techniques improved, most of the snow sheds were eventually removed from service.
Today, there are still a few snow sheds left in service. They serve to protect “cross overs” from snow and ice. A crossover is a pair of switches that connects two parallel rail tracks, allowing a train on one track to cross over to the other. Crossovers have moving parts, making them especially susceptible to failure from snow and ice buildup. Snow sheds on Donner Pass are still located at Shed 10 (M.P. 178), Norden (M.P. 191) and Shed 47 (M.P. 196).
Today, the railroad’s “first line of defense” against snowstorms are the flangers. To the untrained eye, a flanger may appear to be a caboose. A flanger is designed to clear snow and ice from between the rails (where the wheel flange fits). Flangers have two blades, one which throws snow to the left and one which throws snow to the right. As soon as snow starts to accumulate, the flangers will begin making “flips” between Truckee and Fulda. Two specially designed “balloon tracks” allow the flangers to go back and forth without having to make reverse movements. Flangers are relatively lightweight, therefore they are more susceptible to derailment during reverse moves.
During winter storms, flangers will often “escort” trains over the pass. By running a flanger just ahead of a freight or passenger train, the railroad can ensure the tracks remain safe and clear of snow. Often, flanger crews are on duty for 12 hours, making flips between Truckee and Fulda. The best bet to see a flanger is just ahead of Amtrak’s California Zephyr. Due to the high priority and sensitivity of these trains, a flanger will almost always escort the California Zephyr over Donner Pass (during winter storm months).
Besides clearing snow, flangers are also equipped with icicle breakers atop the locomotives. These metal structures prevent the buildup of icicles near tunnel portals and snow sheds. Flanger crews also provide critical, first hand intelligence on mountain conditions. While the railroad utilizes experienced meteorologists, it can be important to have “boots on the ground” who can report on the current weather conditions.
While flangers clear snow from around tracks, they do not clear the entire right-of-way. As snow builds up along the roadbed, Union Pacific will call in the spreaders. These massive snow plows use powerful, hydraulic arms to clear snow away from the tracks. Preventing snow build up along the tracks can help keep the railroad open after several days of heavy snow.
In some locations, the spreaders are able to push the snow directly off a hillside. This helps prevent the “tailings” from building up and creating a solid wall of snow. Where there is not a hillside, Union Pacific utilizes “snowcats”. Snowcats are fully tracked vehicles that are designed to operate in snow. They are equipped with plows, which allow them to clear the tailings left by the spreaders.
The spreaders have unique operations. They can usually be found operating between Truckee and Shed 10 during or just after a heavy snowstorm. Two spreaders are typically staffed and go on duty around 4am. “Truckee Snow” will take both mainlines out-of-service as the spreaders work west. The spreaders work in conjunction with each other, clearing both mainlines. After they arrive at Shed 10, one spreader set will head back to Truckee while the other will continue to Switch 9 or Fulda (clearly the single track portion between Shed 10 and Switch 9). On the way east, the spreaders will often stop to fuel & service generators and the snowcats.
Most winters, the spreaders, flangers and snowcats are enough to keep the railroad open. When conditions get really tough, Union Pacific has to go to the last line of defense.
The iconic rotary snowplows are the railroad’s last hope during fierce winter storms. Although the flangers and spreaders work tirelessly throughout the winter months, their efforts are not always enough. As snow accumulates beyond the pace of the spreaders, the rotaries are called to the rescue. Years of service in the harshest conditions have made the rotaries somewhat of a legend along the railroad.
“They were sometimes called war wagons” said retired Southern Pacific superintendent Bill Lynch, “going to war against Mother Nature.”
Historically, the rotaries have only been called out once every ten years or so. During a historic winter in February of 2017, Union Pacific called upon the rotaries to clear snow from the Donner Pass Route. Union Pacific issued the following special statement to their customers:
“To Our Customers,
Union Pacific’s most powerful snow-removal machine, the rotary snow plow, was in full operation this past weekend during the third snowiest winter in the Sierras in recorded history. The plow cut through snow that reached depths of 13 feet, across 14 miles near the Donner Pass. The railroad’s first and second lines of defense against snowstorms – flangers and spreaders – were unable to keep the tracks clear due to the depth of snow walls, so the rotary was required to clear large amounts of snow in a timely manner.
We have three one-of-a-kind rotary snow plows to use as needed during winter months. Union Pacific’s plows were originally built in the 1920s and operated by steam, then overhauled and converted to diesel electric in the 1950s. In 2012, we made the first major makeover in more than 60 years to one rotary plow enhancing its productivity, reliability and power. We plan to enhance another rotary plow in 2017.
Union Pacific is working diligently during the winter months to keep our lines cleared of snow and ready for your business.”
The rotary snowplows are incredible pieces of machinery. Their power is unmatched and is called upon during the worst conditions. If you have the opportunity to see a rotary in action, it will be a memorable experience.
Railroad Photography Tips
An old Norwegian saying… “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”
As always, remain a safe distance away from the tracks. Remember that these trains are designed to move snow, and therefore a normally safe distance away from the tracks may be inadequate. Always prepare for snow & ice tailings coming from flangers, spreaders and rotaries.
Conditions on the Donner Pass Route can change quickly. Often times, road conditions will deteriorate first. Make sure your vehicle is winterized. In addition to having a full tank of gas, it is important to carry tire chains, extra winter clothing, food and water. Stay up to date on road conditions by googling “CalTrans Road Conditions”.
Photographing snow fighting operations can require additional equipment in order to be successful. Remember, if you are not comfortable, your images and creativity are going to suffer. Plan ahead!
Make sure you have proper snow attire. Wearing waterproof, insulated snow boots along with heavy winter socks will keep your feet warm. Waterproof snow pants, jackets and gloves are also critical. When it comes to staying warm, layers are the key. A beanie and/or hat can help keep your head and ears comfortable as well.
Snowshoes will make your life much easier while hiking in snow-covered terrain. Most of the Donner Pass Route is inaccessible by car during the winter months. In order to access desirable photo locations, snowshoes are a must-have. I use the Tubbs Mountaineering Snowshoes. While pricey, they are built for extreme environments and will keep you safe. Check them out: https://tubbssnowshoes.com
A waterproof camera bag and water-resistant camera equipment will keep your gear safe. There is an inherent danger of using electronic equipment in bad weather. Water and ice can wreak havoc on your equipment if it is not properly protected. Invest in a good camera bag that is easy to wear and will protect your equipment. I trust LowePro: https://www.lowepro.com
Radio communications can be very useful during snow fighting operations. There is often additional radio traffic between trains, Truckee Snow HQ and UP Omaha Dispatcher 9. Being able to hear and understand radio traffic will make you more successful trackside.
Radio Frequency: 160.320
I hope this article provided insight into snow fighting operations along the Donner Pass Route. As always, if you have any questions, please send me a message. Find “Contact Jake” on my website and I will happily get back to you.
Finally, I would like to thank the Union Pacific snow fighting crews. While many folks are at home enjoying the holidays, the snow fighters are working around the clock to the keep the railroad open. It is a difficult job, but they have always displayed a great deal of professionalism and pride in what they do. I’ll see you guys out there soon!
jakemiillephotography.com © 2022
I have been to Donner a few times and even in May it can still be winter. I have often thought of going out in winter but have not done it. Great photos, thanks. If you are interested, I have built a UP Jordan Spreader in 3′ gauge detailed down to the coffee pot and microwave. I can send a photo if you like. Keep up the good work!