“Let it… Snow”
Oh, the snowfall’s deeper than the hedges

But we have rotary plows and wedges
So we’ll toss the snow off the edges
And we’ll go, and we’ll go, and we’ll go…
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Oh, it’s choked the mountain passes
And the oil is thick as molasses
And it’s still coming down in masses
Got to go, got to go, got to go…
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When we finally get it clear
The drifts, they all disappear
And the Shiny Irons reappear
Then we’ll go, then we’ll go, then we’ll go…
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The northeastern United States huddles under cover from another brutal winter storm, and we seek the guidance of Google Dictionary…
Winterize: to adapt or prepare (something, especially a house or an automobile) for use in cold weather.
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The Shiny Irons are particularly keen about winterizing. As with many other modes of transport, the icy crystals can, in quantity, bring hundreds of tons of cargo to a standstill, miring even the most powerful engines in the deep frozen drifts. Gentle accumulations of a few inches can be dealt with the “old-fashioned way”… the train simply blows through the drift, sending newly-formed snowballs hurtling into the distance. As the accumulations grow taller, more extreme steps need taken. At this point, the snowplows appear.
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In slo-motion, an Amtrak “plows snow”
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In the very early days of railroading, snow removal technology in use was wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the Irons. Highway snow removal in those mid-19th Century winters took an entirely different direction than we see today. Winterizing of wagons and carriages included removal of wheels and substitution of skis in their stead. The snow on the roads was then “rolled” to produce a smooth surface for ski-borne transport.
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This approach wasn’t going to work on the Irons, as the ability of the train to move requires an intimate connection of steel wheel to steel rail. The snow has to GO!!!
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The first incarnation of a solution was the Bucker Plow. Initially a simple blade type plow, the Bucker Plow simply pushed the snow off one side of the rails. This was soon superseded by the wedge design,

Steve Talas – Snow plough Train

which split the snowdrift down the middle, pushing equally in both directions. This approach worked well enough for most of The Snowbound Irons, provided the snow was not too deep, and provided there was enough “elbow room” on either side of the track to accommodate the displaced white stuff. The Central Pacific Railroad History Museum web site offers this first person account of a trip across country in 1872, the highlight of the author’s vacation being THREE WEEKS snowbound between Cheyenne, Wy. and Bitter Creek crossing.
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When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific pushed the Irons into the Rocky mountains, the wedge plow met its match. Drifts of several feet are common enough in the mountains, and these conditions left no place for the plowed snow to go. A “positive” solution was not long in coming, and it came from a place where the snow fell even deeper. Canadian dentist (yes, dentist!) J. W. Elliot filed a patent in 1871 for “an improvement on a machine for removing snow from railway tracks.” The intrepid tooth-puller did not actually build the device, leaving it to another Canadian, Orange Jull, to gift the Irons the Rotary Plow. Very much the forerunner of the “sno-blower”, Elliot and Jull’s centrifugal fan plow consisted of a set of radial blades

Elliot/Jull rotary snow plow

which cut into the snow, lifted it and hurled it into the air and off the tracks. The sno-blower offered a workable solution to the problem of plowing snow too deep for a wedge type plow, though the approach generated some problems of its own. Because the Rotary plow needs to spin the blade, it must have its own power source, generally a steam or Diesel engine. Additionally, a rotary plow cuts a “groove” in the snow bank, leaving a vertical wall of snow on either side of the track. Called an “open cut”, these vertical walls make the use of more conventional snow plows impossible… that “lack of elbow room” issue again. Other problem areas, such as operating and maintenance expense, mean that Rotaries are used only when nothing else will do the job.
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White-Out in the Donner Pass!!!
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One of the most macabre events in the early days of travel across the North American continent occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846. Taking a shortcut to California, a group of 20 wagons led by George Donner became snowbound in the Sierra near Truckee, Nevada and were forced to spend the winter in the wilderness. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. One of the most difficult passages on the U.S. transcontinental railroad, the construction of the route over the Donner Pass summit often required working in snow many tens of feet deep. This stretch of Irons has since been the site of serious snow removal issues, highlighted by a 1952 incident involving the City of San Francisco passenger train.

City of San Francisco snowbound
City of San Francisco in warmer times

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On a westbound run over “the Hill”, as the Southern Pacific railroad workers called Donner Summit, The City ran into trouble in Yuba Pass. A monster snow slide had blocked the tracks a few miles west of Donner Pass, leaving 196 passengers and 20 crew members cooling (literally!) their heels in the frigid Sierra that January. Frozen in place, the streamliner required three days of non-stop rotary plow, steam and Diesel locomotive, and hand shoveling to rescue the passengers. Snowplows repeatedly became stuck and had to be pulled free, the water and steam pipes under the hapless streamliner froze, and the train(s) became covered by snowfall, creating a serious danger of suffocation, starvation and dehydration! The stricken ticket-holders were finally evacuated by automobile on U.S. Highway 40 which had been opened as part of the effort. The ice-bound ‘liner was wrestled free three days later. Trains and Travel writer Howard W. Bull penned a comprehensive (and a good read!) account of the event in 1953. Most surely a “close call”, a repeat of the 1846 Donner tragedy was avoided and though all the passengers survived, several injuries and one death marred the joy of the rescue; the danger of snow on the Irons cannot be overstated.
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Today, the Irons rarely use the Rotaries, their cost and complexity having led the railroads to other snow removal solutions. A few are still in occasional use, but by and large the clearing of the Irons is done by wedge plows, bulldozers, Jordan Spreaders, and even ballast regulators.
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The Bamboo Railroad

“If the engine fails and you have to push, walk on the rails… that way you avoid the snakes and land mines on the ground….”
The Irons are itchy… wanderlust runs deep in the twin ribbons of metal, there is always someplace else to go. At the turn of the 20th Century, one could take the train to innumerable exotic destinations, Vietnam… not being one of them. The French colonial government in Indo-China (as Southeast Asia was then known) decided to fix that. The Irons stretched from Western Europe to Bangkok (now in Thailand), and thence to Singapore, but the land south and east of Bangkok had yet to be tracked. Rails existed between many of the cities in the region, but a large gap existed between the Thai border and Phnom Penh. The first Irons were laid on this path around 1930, and by the start of WW2, the modern capital was joined with Poipet on the Thai border.
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The realities of politics intervened after the war, and the service was suspended from Phnom Penh to Thailand by the French… Thailand was seen as an ally to Khmer rebels in the area. The war, the Khmer and the French conspired to bring a permanent halt to rail transport along this stretch of Irons, and the tracks were torn, broken, and, of course, land mined. By the end of the 20th Century, the Khmer government was no more, and the region of Western Cambodia was left with a dilapidated, overgrown rail line with no rolling stock. Ingenuity soon prevailed, as the locals created a unique and wholly appropriate solution — The Bamboo Railroad.
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As in so much of the Third World, Cambodia has a rich resource base of broken-down weaponry left over from innumerable wars, and the local craftspeople drew on this for the construction of the rolling stock. The “cars” running on the rails are very light, very home-built, and very durable. Wheels and axles are of steel salvaged from the machines of war, beaten into ploughshares in the very metaphorical sense. Car bodies are of wood, mostly bamboo, gifting the Bamboo Irons their name. Power takes the form of 12-cylinder to 20-cylinder Diesel eng… … right…. Power is usually provided by a single cylinder gasoline engine turning a belt driving the rear axle. Speeds are around 40kph, which is smokin’ on a vehicle with no brakes!! Very light flatbeds carry… well, what do you need to move? People, baggage, rice and other staple foodstuffs, motorbikes, cattle… if it’ll fit, it’ll ship. Fares are low, locally set and infinitely negotiable, as there is no central authority out here. Timetables are loose, locally set and… yup, infinitely variable, as there is no….
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Running on a single track for almost all the route, there is always the problem of two trains meeting. It’s not as much an issue as it might be in a more industrial area, as the top speeds allow even the brake-less cars to stop well before any metal… er, any bamboo is bent. But, what do you do when two cars meet out in the hinterland, and there’s no siding??? This:
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There are some general rules for which car has to be unloaded and moved;
More passengers > fewer passengers
Motorbike in the cargo > no motorbike
Cattle > no cattle (hey, YOU wanna tell that surly 700lb buffalo to move??? Thought not!)
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Despite its simplicity and unique adaptation to the needs of the population, the Bamboo Railway may be coming to it’s Waterloo. The Cambodian government has plans to upgrade the Irons from the capital to Bangkok, with Chinese help, money and rolling stock. The locals around Battambang aren’t concerned, though — this rumor has been circulating for some time, but no spikes have been driven.
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Play a Train Song

Utah Phillips sings homage to the City of San Francisco, and to the snow… “Frisco Road”

From 1973’s “Starlight on the Rails”

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