photography advice

Donner Pass Snow Fighting: Starter Guide

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

Truckee Headquarters

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.

Two sets of spreaders and several snowcats are staged at the Truckee Snow Headquarters.
On a cold winter evening, a flanger set is staged on the ballon track at Truckee Snow HQ.
Westbound flangers preparing to leave Truckee on a frigid winter morning.

Snow Sheds

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).

A westbound flanger exits the Norden snow shed after crossing over from main track #1 to #2. Notice how the crossover in the foreground is protected from snow and ice.
The Union Pacific ZG2OA meets the MRVNP at the Norden snow shed. An old set of US&S searchlight signals guarded this crossover until November of 2021.
Union Pacific 7952 enters the Norden snow shed as it drags a heavy manifest east.
A BNSF trackage rights train exits the safe confines of the Norden snow shed and begins a long, cold journey down Donner Pass.
Emerging from the snow shed at Norden, Union Pacific 569 leads an eastbound flanger towards the summit.

Flangers

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.

Under stormy skies, an eastbound flanger heads through Yuba Pass, California. This is very close to where the “City of San Francisco” became snowbound in 1952.

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.

A westbound flanger clears main track #1 near Soda Springs, California. The flanger is throwing left onto track #2. On the return trip to Truckee, the flanger clear track #2.
Under stormy skies, an eastbound flanger patrols Donner Summit near Norden, California.
An early morning flanger exits Tunnel 35 near Yuba Pass, California.
Catching some late afternoon sun, an eastbound flanger ducks into Tunnel 36 at Yuba Pass.
After a night of heavy snow fall, a flanger heads east through Cisco under sunny skies. Notice the icicle breaker atop the UP 602.
On a frosty winter morning, a westbound flanger escorts a Z train through Troy, California.
The flangers on patrol during another snowy afternoon in the High Sierras.
A late evening arrival into Truckee after a long day of snow fighting.
Snow fighting does not stop when the sun goes down. A westbound flanger leaves Truckee for a long night of snow fighting.

Spreaders

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.

The spreaders are huge machines capable of moving walls of heavy snow away from the tracks.

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.

Snowcats and spreaders have become a very effective combination for snow removal.

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.

The spreaders head around the balloon track at Truckee. Check out the various design features which allow this machine to move a tremendous amount of snow.
Notice how the spreaders are equipped with hydraulic “arms”, allowing crews to remove snow well away from the tracks.
Dual spreaders roll along the Truckee River as they race back towards Snow HQ.
The sheer size of the Sierra Nevada Mountains dwarf the spreaders as they head west into Emigrant Gap.
The spreaders head east along the Truckee River during an unusual trip east of Truckee. The Eastern Sierra often receives less snowfall than the western slope due to the rain shadow effect.
Dual spreader sets make a late evening appearance in Truckee after an unusual trip east to Boca. Due to heavy snow in December of 2021, spreaders were also needed east of Truckee.
After a day of spreading snow, SPMW 4030 heads east through Soda Springs. Hot on its tail is an eastbound Z train which was delayed due to snow fighting operations. Union Pacific’s Roseville Sub Dispatcher is anxious to get trains moving.
The orange coloring of Union Pacific’s spreader sets make them easy to spot in snowy conditions.

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.

Rotaries

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 powerful rotary snowplow works east through Troy, California.
SPMW 207 shows off its impressive “throw” as it cuts through heavy snow at Norden.
As the rotaries work to clear snow from the Donner Pass Route, Amtrak’s eastbound California Zephyr rolls by on main track #2 at Norden.
The unique design of the rotary snowplow makes it quite the spectacle.
Without snow fighters, this critical transportation corridor would be cut off.
A late winter evening finds the SPMW 207 (rotary) is in the siding at Emigrant Gap. Meanwhile, a westbound manifest heads down main track #1 while an eastbound grain train waits at Switch 9.

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

Safety

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”.

A midmorning hike through fresh snow at Norden.

Equipment

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

The best adventures start on snowshoes.
A hot cup of coffee on a cold morning can help take the chill out of the air. Support local businesses.

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

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

On a mountain while waiting on a train.

Closing Out

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

Cuesta Pass Railroading: Return of Freight

During August of 2021, Union Pacific began a bridge replacement project along the Santa Barbara Subdivision near Narlon, California (Vandenberg Air Force Base; between Guadalupe and Santa Barbara). The original bridge, built in 1896, spanned the San Antonio Creek and was 720-feet long. Due to the age and condition of the bridge, replacement was necessary in order to prevent future, unplanned service disruptions along the Coast Route. 

Blueprint for the new San Antonio Creek Bridge. Courtesy of the California Coastal Commission.

During the replacement project, a hard closure of the Santa Barbara Subdivision was in effect at Narlon. No trains, including Amtrak’s Coast Starlight or Pacific Surfliner could traverse the route. Amtrak trains were annulled (canceled). Fortunately for Union Pacific, there is only one regularly scheduled freight train that travels through Narlon. The “Guadalupe Hauler”, or more simply “The Guad”, runs twice a week between Van Nuys and Guadalupe. It services many agricultural and industrial customers in the Santa Maria region. Some shipments include time sensitive, refrigerated produce cars. 

With the line shutdown at Narlon, Union Pacific needed to detour The Guad. The only detour option was to send the train north towards San Luis Obispo (SLO). Once in SLO, The Guad would head north over the infamous Cuesta Pass. 

Cuesta Pass is a 16 mile stretch of track which crosses the Santa Lucia Mountains between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita. Cuesta Pass is commonly known as the most difficult stretch of railroad on the entire Coast Route. It highlights five tunnels, many tight curves and a maximum grade of 2.2%. 

During the Southern Pacific era, it was common to see freight and passenger trains traversing Cuesta Pass. Unfortunately, today is a different story. Union Pacific rarely utilizes Cuesta Pass for freight traffic, opting to send “thru trains” (from the Bay Area to LA) via the Central Valley and Tehachapi Pass. No local trains service this region either. Therefore, the only regularly scheduled rail traffic on Cuesta Pass is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. 

Cuesta Pass is home to some of the last remaining searchlight signals in California. These signals, installed in the 1940’s, were part of the second CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) project on the Southern Pacific network. SP installed CTC on Cuesta Pass due to an increase in rail traffic during World War II.

In April of this year, I drove to San Luis Obispo to photograph the searchlight cantilever located at North Serrano. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight was the only train in a 24 hour period. I was fortunate to capture an image but felt as if there was more. When I heard The Guad was detouring, I knew I had to make a trip. 

On a cold and rainy April afternoon, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight passes the searchlights at Serrano as it tackles the infamous Cuesta Pass.

Leaving my home in Northern California, I decided to take the scenic route via Highway 1 between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. I arrived in San Luis Obispo a day early so I would be in position to shoot The Guad the following morning. On Sunday, August 15th, 2021, I hiked up to the Serrano cantilever. The cool temperatures and scenic hike through the golden California hills made for a picture-perfect morning. 

Within 15 minutes, the whine of two EMD locomotives echoed throughout Cuesta Pass. Soon after, the UP 1139 appeared, dragging nine cars passed the searchlight signals at North Serrano. The UP 1139 was recently assigned to the El Segundo Local in South Los Angeles, where it picked up a unique assortment of graffiti tags. 

Union Pacific 1139 leads The Guad passed the North Serrano Searchlights.
UP 1139 sporting a South Los Angeles paint job.

As The Guad headed north for McKay, I repositioned to above Tunnel 11 near Chorro. Within a couple hours, the sound of dynamic brakes broke the peaceful silence. The Guad reappeared, hauling an impressive 28 cars down the steep Cuesta Grade towards San Luis Obispo. 

Union Pacific 4101 prepares to enter Tunnel 11 as it guides a 28-car train down the Cuesta Grade.

Once the train arrived in San Luis Obispo, it tied down for the night. The following morning, a fresh crew came aboard and took the train to its final destination of Guadalupe. 

Union Pacific 4101 passes the Oceano Dunes as it heads south along the Santa Barbara Subdivision.
After a lengthy detour, The Guad arrives in its namesake destination.

Photographing freight trains on Cuesta Pass can be a difficult assignment. The rarity of freight traffic combined with historic searchlight signals and beautiful scenery can make for unique images. I am looking forward to the next opportunity to photograph trains along this unique stretch of railroad. 

Thank you for reading my blog! If you have a question, please leave me a comment below. 

jakemiillephotography.com © 2021 

We All Start Somewhere

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Tonight’s Throwback

So I was just recently going through some of my older photos on Flickr, and believe me, MY EYES HURT! It really shocked me I even took these photos, and then somehow thought they were good enough to post. What was I thinking?!?

Well we do all start somewhere. Most people cannot pick up a camera for the first time and start capturing compelling content. Becoming a photographer takes work.

So let me show you what I am talking about. Here are some of the images that were still posted on my Flickr as of October 2014. Warning: These could cause pain to the eyes and possible blindness.

Just look at the beautiful colors, composition and photographic ingenuity!

 

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Please take some time to wash out your eyes.

Now, back to business. You might ask “Jake, why did you post these in the first place?” Well that’s a great question and one that will help you understand what I am trying to get at. See, back then I had a much different mindset. The only thing I was focused on was documenting “cool” railroad equipment. I didn’t care how the image looked, what the light was like or how I could edit the photo, all I wanted was the image. This gave me something to look back on and go “wow that was cool!”

Notice a theme with these images? All of them have “unique” or “rare” equipment. The first two have heritage units, which are a huge deal in the foamer community. The next photos depicts a freight train on Cuesta Pass and the final two show vintage equipment. All of these things made me post the photo even though the photo itself was terrible. I thought this equipment was more important than the photo.

 

The Transition to Railroad Photography

Now you might be saying “well the equipment IS cooler than the photo” and if you are saying that, cool! You obviously have a strong passion for trains and you should keep that. This next bit of advice is for folks looking to make the transition from “equipment documenter” to “railroad photographer”.

Like I said before, we all start somewhere. I guarantee when you first start out, the reception will not be warm. You might here “This photo will never be on RailPictures” or “This, this, and this are wrong with the photo”. It happened to me and many others out there.

And this brings me to my first point: Don’t be defensive. 

It is easy to say “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “screw him, he’s just a terrible person”, but by doing that, you potentially cut yourself off from quality advice. I’ll tell you a story from when I was just starting out. I remember Steven Welch telling me “you need to learn the railroad” and “your photos are horrible”. For awhile I was defensive and arrogant. I thought, no way are my photos that bad and I certainly know the railroad. Luckily, I eventually came around to listening to him. He ended up teaching me the basics on composition, lighting and the railroad. By listening to him (and others of course) I was able to vastly improve my photography. So don’t get mad, start listening!

Next you need to: Want to learn. 

Photography is like anything else. If you want to succeed, you have to want to learn. This will require time, energy and resources ($$), but can be worth it in the long run if you truly want to improve your photography.

 

What To Do Right Now

1. Go watch videos about photography. Go to youtube and watch a ton of free videos or buy a program done by a professional (I recommend CreativeLive).

2. Find photographers you like and view their work on a regular basis. Constantly view photos you like and that style can slowly come to your work.

3. View photos that are not of trains. To be great at railroad photography, it helps to know the basics of other kinds of photography (landscape, environmental portraits, photojournalistic approach).

4. Then ask yourself “what elements of this photo do I like or dislike”. Do your own critique. Figure out what you like, then go find a way to capture it. To this this day, I still view at least 100 photos a day.

 

Now there is a lot more that goes in to becoming a good photographer and I’m sure I’ll touch on those in future tech tips. But the last point I wanted to make was about keeping a quality portfolio.

Like I showed you above, there are a lot of images on my Flickr that should be in the trash. This is a good reminder that you need to occasionally go back through your portfolio and delete the “trash”. Deleting photos can sometimes improve your portfolio as much as adding photos. So if you’ve been shooting for awhile, go back through and take a look. Don’t end up like me!

What do you think? Do you edit your portfolio often? If you find some laughable throwbacks share them with me. I’d love to see them!

Comments, questions, concerns? Leave a comment or hit “Contact Jake“! I love to hear from you guys.