Struggling with snow – 24/7
Keeping the roads and tracks clear during the spate of record-setting storms was a 24/7 ordeal.While workers with the Town of Truckee Public Works Department have been on 12-hour-day, seven-day-a-week shifts to keep roads passable, Union Pacific crews were heading even higher up into the mountains to keep the railroad tracks open. Both achieved varying results.Dan Wilkins, Truckee Public Works director, said the volume of traffic and vehicles blocking the road reduced snow removal capacity by 30 percent during the first storm that struck during the holidays. Equipment got stuck in traffic or couldn’t plow roads because of parked, stuck and spunout cars, he said.”Overall I’m pleased. I think that our crews did an excellent job,” he said. “When we get big storms like this out basic goal is to make sure that emergency access is available and vehicle can get in and out.”
Some 400 loads of snow were removed from downtown from the first storm. More than 400 loads will be removed from downtown after the latest round, Wilkins said.To keep up with the largest amount of snowfall in 90 years, 4,500-person hours were expended during the storms for snow removal just among town staff. Up to 6,000 person hours were used if contractors that were brought on to help are calculated.”It would be safe to say that the off-hauling [of snow downtown] from these two storms will be more than the sum total of all the storms last year,” Wilkins said. And even though the railroad is more likely to stay open than Interstate 80 during the recent storms like, the heavy snowfall has kept Union Pacific crews busy around the clock.”We’ve been running pretty steady, but occasionally we’ve been shut down,” said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley. “Over New Year’s Eve we had an instance of that until we could get plows to clear the tracks out and get the trains going again.”
Last weekend produced such heavy snowfall that one wheel of one car on an Amtrak train derailed near Emigrant Gap, Bromley said “and that shut things up on one track.”No one was injured in the California Zephyr derailment, but it stranded 222 passengers and crew for approximately six hours Sunday evening. The Amtrak train was on its way from Oakland to Chicago when the train came off the tracks at around 5 p.m. just west of Donner Summit. Passengers were transferred to other train cars and brought back down to Sacramento before being bussed to Reno to spend the night, according to Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.The derailment was likely caused by a buildup of snow on the tracks, according to Bromley, who noted that passenger cars are typically lighter than freight cars and therefore are more likely to float up over snow rather than plowing through it.To deal with the problem of snow on the tracks, Union Pacific operates a number of flangers and spreaders – specialized pieces of railroad equipment designed to clear snow and ice from between the tracks and beside the tracks respectively – during heavy storms such as last weekend’s.”Through normal snowfalls, there are plows on the front of each of our locomotives, and they usually keep the track pretty clear through normal situations,” Bromley said. “But when it really gets heavy we have to send out the flangers. That’s the first line of defense … to keep the flange waste cleared and the snow out from between the rails.”
The next piece of equipment called into action is a spreader, Bromley explained. It is a large piece of equipment that has blades that can be extended out to push the snow off the tracks and away from the tracks.Along the Donner Summit tracks, spreaders generally push snow toward the downhill slope, allowing gravity to help with the snow removal effort. Bulldozers and snowcats can be called in if additional help is needed in clearing the snow from beside the tracks, Bromley said.”And then the final weapon is the rotary snowplow, and those are old-timers; they go way back in railroad history,” Bromley said. “We keep a pair of those down in Roseville and those are used as a last effort because once you use a rotary, that cuts a deep cut through the snow, and then you’re stuck with that cut for the rest of the winter.”No rotary plows have been used this year over Donner Summit.Meanwhile, Police Chief Scott Berry reminded Truckee drivers that although driving around with a huge pile of snow on your car might look cool, all that snow can create a safety hazard to drivers.