Winter weather wallops operations on Donner Pass

Rotary SPMW 222 is down for the count
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The SPMW 222 at Crystal Lake, Calif., about 15 minutes before its bearings failed.
S.R. Bush
TRUCKEE, Calif. – Winter on Donner Pass is only at the halfway mark but already is proving one to be remembered. November and December were mild, but in January things began to shift the pace and strength of storms seemed to increase, but only incrementally, and not really alarmingly.

Through the earlier winter, an operating pattern developed. After midnight the railroad would slowly be buried in snow without a steady stream of traffic. At dawn flangers and spreaders set to work digging out and maintenance-of-way forces then released the railroad back to DS 74, the dispatcher desk in charge of the line. Usually Amtrak's California Zephyrs had entered the picture and were waiting, No. 5 at Truckee and No. 6 at Fulda.

With the line cleared, flangers would run to the balloon tracks at Truckee and Fulda, turn, and escort the passenger trains — the first traffic of the day — over The Hill. Freights would then follow. This scenario was repeated after most storms. At one point, an avalanche warning was issued. A rotary set was moved up to Colfax from Roseville to step in if needed, but was waved off and returned the next day.

In February, however, the storms got colder, and the snow line was accordingly lower. Snow was now higher than the top of the rail on the line west of the balloon track at Fulda. This is outside the territory of normal flanger operations. The routine established in January, allowing the line to close in the early hours and reopen mid-day, was quickly overwhelmed. It was taking the snow removal forces much longer to reopen The Hill. Things were deteriorating. On Feb. 26, a rotary set was brought up to Colfax. That same day both Zephyrs were annulled. By this time derailments of flangers and spreaders started occurring. At the same time DS 74 was still trying to weave revenue freights through the openings as best he or she could.

That all came to a grinding halt on Feb. 27.

There were seven freight trains scattered across The Hill with crews beginning to die on hours of service. Two flangers were on the ground, and a 200-foot snow slide was reported at milepost 182. It was time to bring in the rotary from Colfax, but first the railroad had to get those trains off the line. Light engines were sent from Sparks to pull some trains back to Truckee; the others made it out on their own. Late that night the rotary was cleared to move east, but by the time it reached Emigrant Gap a flanger had derailed blocking the way. The rotary held at Emigrant Gap while maintenance-of-way crews struggled to re-rail the flanger.

On the morning of Feb. 28, with the grounded flanger removed, spreaders moved east on Track 1 shoving snow onto Track 2. The rotary would follow on Track 2 and toss that snow up and over the rim of the shelf the railroad runs on.

The leading rotary was SPMW 222, fresh from its recent rebuild. This was to be its maiden run. The unthinkable struck immediately: after plowing barely 2 miles, the bearings on the main shaft of the spinning rotor failed, disabling No. 222. This was just west of Cisco.

Crewmembers decided not to retreat. They could not, anyway. Track 2 had been buried in preparation for the rotaries and was now out of service. The two rotaries were separated so that the west-facing SPMW 207 could run back and turn on the balloon at Fulda. But by the time it arrived, a flanger had derailed on the balloon track.

Options had been exhausted. No. 207 returned East to retrieve No. 222, and both ran the 75 miles back to Roseville. No. 222 was set out and a fresh crew was called. After midnight on March 1, No. 207 ran alone back up Donner to open Track 2.

Saturday morning another, much warmer storm started passing over the Sierras, dropping snow at higher elevations than previous systems. On Sunday Amtrak restored California Zephyr service over Donner Pass. Train No. 5 ran about nine hours late with delays incurred to the east. Train No. 6 ran on time from Emeryville.

The next storm is due Tuesday, which will last into Thursday and is predicted to be much colder. Monday, rotary SPMW 207 has gone up the hill by itself and will likely run through to Roseville in the evening. Meanwhile SPMW 209 and 211 are in Roseville and ready for service if needed.

Regarding the disabled rotary, Union Pacific spokesman Tim McMahan tells Trains News Wire that “the SPMW 222 was tested but is not being used.” No further information on its status is available at this time.

Railroading is not one of the exact sciences, ask any of the hard-working crews, of all crafts, that work The Hill.
The SPMW 207 returns up The Hill at East Gold Run, Calif., at 2:15 a.m. Friday after setting out the stricken 222 in Roseville.
S.R. Bush
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