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  • Idaho Ice Storm

    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 54

    Text and Photography by Bruce Kelly

    The Pineapple Express

    Sheltered by the Cascade Range to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the northeast, the Inland Empire region of Spokane, Wash., and neighboring northern Idaho is usually spared the brunt of winter's heavy Pacific storms and arctic chills. But nothing could stem the freak weather of Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1996, that literally brought railroad operations to a frozen standstill. Weather forecasters called it the Pineapple Express, a steady flow of moisture originating near Hawaii that dumped record precipitation from the Washington and Oregon coasts clear into Montana. Seattle and Portland are no strangers to freezing rain, but for northern Idaho, an all-day ice storm was an unusual and fierce introduction to winter.

    Pounds the Panhandle

    Tree limbs and utility lines came crashing down throughout the Inland Empire, cutting off electricity to more than 130,000 homes and businesses. On Burlington Northern & Santa Fe's busy Funnel main line across northern Idaho, train traffic was slowed by CTC outages. At several points all communication with the dispatcher in Fort Worth, Texas, was lost when radio, land line, and cell phone systems broke down. Although the turnouts for dispatcher-controlled sidings were kept clear by propane-powered switch heaters, other less frequently used turnouts were locked solid in ice. Coming back off the branch from its namesake Idaho destination, BNSF's Coeur d'Alene Local couldn't re-enter the main line at Hauser Junction, Idaho, until a maintainer came out from Spokane to de-ice the electric switch lock. Likewise, the crew of Union Pacific's Coeur d'Alene Local, who had already spent most of the day rerailing several wheels in Coeur d'Alene, couldn't open the main line switch at Coeur d'Alene Junction and had to tie up the train for the night on the branch.

    OPPOSITE PAGE: At West Hauser, Idaho, a Search light signal is encrusted with ice. ABOVE: DASH 9 1011 is caked with snow as it crosses the Idaho Washington border west of Hauser.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 55

    TOP: On Nov. 20, 1998, a rural road sign seems as if it is frozen in time after the storm at Hauser. ABOVE: This Union Pacific section crew has the tedious and uncomfortable job of clearing the switch at Coeur d'Alene Junction, Idaho.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 56

    Winter's Icy Grip

    By 7:50 p.m., the BNSF dispatcher declared, "I have dead trains everywhere, and switches that won't throw." Indeed, crews were exhausting their hours of service all over the district and parking their trains in nearly every siding from Spokane east to Sandpoint, and beyond. Twenty miles east of Spokane at Hauser Yard, tracks that normally hold unit grain trains slowly filled with manifest freights and intermodals.

    The railroads were attacked by more than just ice. A landslide near Ayer, Wash., on UP's Washy Line delayed Hinkle-to-Spokane train HKSK by several hours, while up north in Idaho, between Sandpoint and the Canadian border, two feet of fresh snow hampered traffic on both the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern & Santa Fe. Shortly after midnight, with the worst of the ice storm over, UP train CPHK out of the Canadian Pacific interchange at Eastport struck a tree south of Sandpoint and had to set out its lead unit at Clagstone.

    Wednesday, Nov. 20, dawned with trains, tracks, signals, and code lines all glazed in ice. Running 12 hours late, UP train HKCP thundered north past a section crew at Coeur d'Alene Junction who was using a blowtorch and shovels to free the previous day's stranded local. And one by one, a fleet of BNSF west bounds marched out of Hauser Yard toward Spokane. Long periods of one-way traffic were the order until enough of BNSF's sidings could be emptied to execute meets. On Thursday, Nov. 21, UP managed to put a "snowfighting train" together, essentially sending a spreader plow north from Hinkle on train HKSK to tackle the heavy Idaho snow. Its progress was slow, however, with the HKSK again arriving at Spokane hours behind schedule because of red or dead signals across more than 150 miles of the Washy Line.

    Union Pacific train HKCP (Hinkle, Ore.-Canadian Pacific, Eastport, Idaho) passes the stranded Coeur d'Alene Local (seen left of the train) at Coeur d'Alene Junction, Idaho.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 57

    A week later, UP operations across northern Idaho were pretty much back to normal, but on BNSF, things were less than fluid. As of Dec. 3, company vans were still ferrying dog-catch crews from Spokane to outlawed trains as far away as Troy, Mont. A BNSF dispatcher reported that some 60 trains were back logged across the entire northern tier to Minnesota, and that fleeting of large numbers of trains, mostly westbounds, was still under way.

    If November was any indication, northern Idaho could be in for a heck of a winter. Even with no more ice storms, the snowpack combined with later heavy rain could result in major flooding and land slides, repeating the disaster that ravaged area railroads last winter.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Bruce Kelly
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date March 1997

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