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  • Donner Snowfighters

    On Dec. 22, 1998, a Southern Pacific flanger blasts through the fresh snow at Soda Springs, Calif. Note the icicle breakers and revolving window, both telltale signs of a SP locomotive assigned to snow fighting duty.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 58 RailNews - March 1997 - Page 59

    Text and Photography by Dick Dorn

    Late in the evening of Dec. 20, just hours before the official start of the season, winter came roaring into California's Sierra Nevada mountains like a lion. Six feet of snow fell on Donner Pass, and railroaders fought to keep the line in service.

    This is their story.

    Until this storm, a scant 20 inches of snow was on the ground at Norden-the railroad summit-and the season had required only a single flanger movement. Roadmaster Steve La Vigne had made several trips up the mountain out of Truckee with his pair of winter equipped regulators to clear the right-of-way during earlier small storms. Each regulator can remove up to a foot of snow and, operated by two persons, provides a cost-effective way to keep the railroad clear.

    But regulators would be no match for this storm, and help was quickly dispatched from Roseville, Calif., with a flanger called to duty at 12:15 a.m. on Dec. 21. A second flanger was called out at 10:05 a.m. Flangers are pulled by a pair of GP38s specially equipped for snow duty, with rotating disc wind shields and breaker bars that extend upward from the roof of the cab to knock down icicles in tunnels. These special units are kept captive in the Roseville area during the winter months.

    RIGHT: Icicles hang from the cab of a snow service GP38-2 at Truckee, Calif., on Dec. 22, 1998. This locomotive is experiencing first hand the drastic change from its previous duties in Houston. BELOW: From the cab of the spreader, Jim "Bear" Mahon, district division engineer, gives instructions to the dispatcher in Denver on Dec. 23, 1998. OPPOSITE PAGE: On Dec. 22, 1998, a maintenance-ol-way crew helps a flanger crew dig out a switch in the Truckee yard.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 60

    The flanger has a blade, controlled by the conductor in the locomotive cab, that drops between the rails to clear ice and snow. Flangers are allowed to operate at speeds up to 40 mph-well above track speed-so that the blades can throw the snow clear of the track. Train crews out of Roseville are called to run the flangers with an engineer, conductor, and a brakeman (who rides in the flanger).

    As the storm progressed, the flangers shuttled back and forth over the pass, operating between the balloon tracks at Truckee and Fulda, just below Emigrant Gap. (Flangers can make a round trip over this 40-mile section of snow territory in three hours.)

    Road Foreman of Engines Jerry Tausch sat in the trainmaster's office in Truckee, Calif., the hub for snow operations. Tausch maintained constant contact with the WS 74 dispatcher in Denver giving instructions on all movements on the mountain. After dark on Dec. 21, La Vigne returned with the regulators and reported on the progress of snow removal. At 8:30 p.m., a third flanger was called out of Roseville, and at 10:30 p.m., the crew of the first flanger was finally ordered back for their rest.

    The first day of winter had brought 18 inches of snow to the summit, but the trains continued operating.

    On Dec. 22 the storm raged on, with snow falling at a steady two inches an hour and the snow level descending below 3,000 feet. La Vigne and the regulators were dispatched again, to work the area west of Emigrant Gap as the heavy wet snow was causing problems as far down as Gold Run at 3,000 feet. Another flanger call was made at 10:30 a.m. Three snow service crews were now in Truckee, with one crew resting while the other two worked.

    La Vigne and his regulator crews struggled to move the heavy water-laden snow. Their progress was halted near Blue Canon, and they retumed to Truckee. Hoping to photograph the operations, I had managed to make it to Soda Springs, crossing 1-80 just before it re-c1osed. Winds were gusting above 50 mph, and the snowfall was heavy. Visibility was re-stricted, making photography difficult but rewarding. By mid-afternoon conditions had worsened, and I decided to get off the summit and make a run for Truckee. The eight miles on I-80 consumed an hour and a half-much of it spent stopped in white-out conditions created by howling winds. At no time did my speed exceed 10 mph.

    Trains continue to move over the mountain, but at greatly restricted speed. Amtrak No. 5, the west bound California Zephyr, eased by the Truckee office at 7:15 p.m. At 10:30 p.m., a call came into Jerry Tausch that the seventh car of the 10-car train had derailed its trailing truck between Blue Canon and Midas. Tausch notified Trainmaster Todd Jacques at Roseville and called Amtrak headquarters to develop a plan to get the passengers off the mountain. Since the area of the derailment is only accessible by rail, passengers were moved from the last three cars of the train to the diner, lounge, and sleepers.

    While Todd Jacques was assembling his forces to rerail the Amtrak coach, an emergency call from the Amtrak crew reported a passenger suffering severe abdominal pain. Jacques left Colfax on a pair of light locomotives, picked up paramedics at Gold Run, and headed for No. 5. The ailing passenger was removed and brought to the waiting ambulance at Gold Run.

    At 1:45 a.m., No. 5 uncoupled from its derailed car and resumed its westward journey. After a brief stop in Colfax, it arrived in Sacramento, where buses took passengers to their destinations.

    While No. 5 traveled on, Jacques picked up eight workers and returned to the derailed coach. Because ice and snow had built up around the coach's trailing truck, when the car went through a sharp curve, the truck could not swivel enough and it jumped the rails. Now the ice and snow had to be picked away and cleared before the car could be rerailed-in cramped quarters, a difficult task that lasted several hours. Using blacks and rerailing frogs, the crew eased the coach onto the rails at 10:30 a.m., and the three Amtrak cars were taken to Colfax.

    Shortly before Tausch recieved the call from Amtrak, the engineer on Union Pacific 7035 east, an empty unit grain train, reported that his train would not start after waiting at Fulda for two hours for hot westbound KCORT freight and Amtrak No. 3 to pass. In the swirling, blowing snow, the two passing trains had thrown snow and ice under the wheels of the stopped train, immobilizing it. Tausch mad eanother call to Colfax where Jim "Bear" Mahon, district division engineer, had just completed an inspection ride on a flanger.

    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 61

    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 62

    Mahon supervised the rescue operation.A flanger, just ready to keave Truckee, was called back. The GGP38s dropped the flanger and operated light to Fulda to meet Mahon, who rode up from Colfax on a pair of helpers. With over three feet of snow on the ground, even something as simple as dropping of a flanger became difficult. It took the crew two hours just to dig out a switch,

    At the train, Mahon and the flanger crew began digging out each set of wheels and clearinf the rails with shovels. Then five cars at a time were placed in emergency braking, and skidded free (to avoid the wheels rolling up on the packed snow and ice and derailing.) Slowly and tediously, the cars were taken three miles up to switch 9 in groups of 15, and then backed down on to the No. 1 track.

    The arrival of a caterpillar tractor from the Amtrak derailment site helped speed the process. The cat cleared the track, giving shoveling room to Mahon and his small crew. With work continuing throughout the night, the 90-car train was reassembled by 10:30 a.m. Soon UP 7035 was highballing east.

    Mahon had been outspoken in his opposition to the single-tracking of Donner Pass, and this incident illistrates why double track is necessary in snow territory. Had two tracks been in place between Switch 9 and Shed 10, the grain train would have kept moving and not become trapped. Fortunately, Union Pacific plans to restore the double track, except for a stretch of Track 1 on the old alignment between Shed 47 and Norden.

    Both rescues were successful because of the heroic efforts of dedicated men-despite the additional 36 inches of snow that fell during that day.

    Dec. 23 brought a slight break in the weather to Truckee after a night of steady snow. But dark clouds encircling the summit meant nasty weather up on the mountain. In the trainmasters office, Jerry Tausch was still hanging tough, though he couldn't remember the last time he saw a bed. That day he planned to take the spreaders out for a major cleanup of the entire mountain. He could operate them as usual in tandem-one spreader following the other for maximum efficiency. Unfortunately, his plan hit a snag. A maintenence-of-way official must ride on each spreader, and Bear Mahon was still in Fulda, working on the snowed-in grain train. Mahon's absence meant the railroad could operate only one spreader (with La Vigne on board). So the spreaders had to be coupled back-to back, one on each end of a pair of GP38s.

    Heading west out of Truckee on the No. 1 track, the lead spreader worked next to the bank, feeding snow over to the No. 2 track. (The spreader wing can extend 16 feet from the center of the rails it travels, making this special snow service spreader the most efficient kind of snowmoving equipment.) The train climbed a steady 12 to 15 mph on the way up to shed 47. The WS 74 dispatcher would block No. 2 track until the spreader returned later that day to plow it out.

    Snow was still falling as the spreaders arrived at Norden. The siding was cleared first, and then the main line down to the last remaining Norden snowsheds at West Norden.There the spreader paused to let the newly rescued UP 7035 east clear, and then a tired but satisfied Mahon arrived with the flanger power. The spreaders continued plowing west on the No.2 track all the way to Shed 10, maintaining a good 15 to 19 mph pace. At Shed 10, the spreader entered singletrack territory and plowed down to Switch 9. There the spreaders were moved over to No. 1 track to work the inside and feed snow over to No. 2 track. Usually the spreaders turn at Fulda's balloon track, but Mahon ordered them to go all the way to Gold Run to knock out the core of heavy, wet snow.

    After arriving at Gold Run at 3:45 p.m., the spreaders crossed over, heading east on No. 2 track. There the spreaders really showed their stuff, shoving the snow plowed over from No. 1 track on the trip down and the accumulated snow from No. 2 track over the bank. As darkness arrived, the moonlit landscape sparkled with fresh snow. The Run to Norden after leaving Shed 10 proved to be the heaviest plowing of the trip.

    OPPOSITE PAGE: Inside the last remaining wooden snowshed at the west portal of Tunnel 41, a spreader waits for a green signal on Oec. 23, 1998. LEFT: On the night of Dec. 22, 1998, a flanger plows the heavy snow near Upper Cascade bridge west of Norden, Calif. BELOW: As flanger power heads east for Truckee, a spreader pauses at the West Norden snowsheds on Dec. 23, 1998.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 63

    At the Soda Springs crossing, Mahon wished every one a Merry Christmas and departed for home and a well-deserved rest. The spreaders plowed out the No. 2 track from Shed 47 to Truckee, arriving back at 7:50 p.m. An additional 18 inches of snow had fallen that day-bringing the storm total to 72 inches-but the railroad had been cleared, and trains were moving easily. The valiant Donner snowfighters had earned their rest.

    I shared quick good-byes and Christmas wishes with Jerry Tausch and Steve La Vigne, and drove home over the mountain to Yuba City. As I made my way, my mind wandered back to the previous two days. I thought about the dedication of Mahon, La Vigne, Tausch, and Jacques-officials deeply respected by their men. These leaders set an example through their work ethic, whether it is expressed on the end of a shovel or through supervising a gang of men. It's the professionalism of these men that keep trains rolling over Donner Pass-a place that receives more snow than any other railroad location in the continental United States.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Dick Dorn
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date March 1997

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