Winter Ops: How Now, Snow Plow?

Keeping Rail Lines Open Through Harsh New England/Canada East Winters Takes Preparation, Calculation, Technique, and Guts.

November – March, Snow Belt – In northern New England, snow falls early, piles up quickly, and lasts well into Spring. Snow/ice buildup is rarely a problem on higher-density rail lines, but on New England rail lines often fall prey to seasonal slowdowns and weekend respites, allowing snow to build up faster than it can be pushed aside. It wouldn’t be an issue if railroads automatically ran their big snowplow after every snowfall. But they don’t; every plow order emanates from a complex set of decisions beyond the fact that there is snow on the tracks.

Baltic CT

P&W borrowed a GMR Russel Plow in 2014 to clear unusually deep snow between Plainfiels CT and Willimantic. Fully-extended wings and ~25 mph speeds throw snow well clear of the ROW.

Try everything else first

One to two feet of snow from a single storm is easily handled by the standard locomotive nose plow. The lead locomotive cuts a path that is further gouged by trailing locomotives and cars, and running a couple of trains through the fresh snow is usually enough to keep the line and flangeways open through a storm or two. If the snow is light, a patented regulator plow fitted with a V-shaped plow will be sent. These methods do a good job of pushing the snow outside the flanges.

Ludlow VT

Before dispatching the locomotive-pushed plow , a specially outfitted ballast regulator fitted with a patented plow. These self propelled machines can handle a light to moderate snowfall.

Snowball effect

But when Mother Nature sends down another foot or two, or threatens wetter precipitation on top, heavy snow and ice can build up and along the right-of-way. Buildup in the gauge and flanges can impede the train’s forward motion and cause crossing derailments, while the plow mound outside the flanges can create a safety issue for crewmembers dismounting the train to inspect a defect or drill a customer; or if it freezes hard, can preclude further plowing, leading to a line closure. When the buildup reaches a certain level – completely contingent on consecutive storms and the subsequent buildup – the railroad resorts to a locomotive-pushed plow to maintain the route and uphold customer commitments.

Hartland VT

NECR’s Jordan Spreader plows ahead of an Amtrak Vermonter. Amtrak trains utilize the NECR Roxbury and Palmer Subdivisions. In snow conditions, the AMTK locos’ mount a low-hanging plow which are effective in most circumstances. But they can throw deep snow high ahead of the cab, blocking operator visibility. This type also has extendable wings that are more effective at slow speed and for yard clearing.


Running a pushed-plow extra is not a simple or economical matter. Safe, effective operation requires an expanded crew, and takes a locomotive out of service to perform a time-consuming, non-revenue operation.

Multiple factors are taken into consideration before issuing a plow order. Road foreman and train crew report on the train and/or regulator plows’ prospects of keeping up with the natural snowfall and the flange pileup. If the pushed-plow is deemed necessary, the equipment is positioned, and the crew called. Hitting the road, the train carries a crew of four or five: a locomotive engineer, a conductor and two “wingmen” in the plow, and often an extra operating man who coordinates plow operation, operates the plow’s horn and headlights, and communicates with the engineer and with dispatch.

With more than a couple of feet of snow everywhere, all crewmembers must have a “blind” familiarity with with the territory. As veteran railroader once acknowledged that, “the crew has to know their territory, and to look death straight in the eye and laugh,” connoting the crew’s understanding that one ice-packed crossing stands between a solid snow-clearing run and a derailed plow.

In addition to the plowset crew, MOW crews are alerted to assist at crossings and clear track obstructions.

Norridgewock ME

Pan Am crews keep an eye on a crossing as plow crew carefully applies flange gouge.

Old dogs, old tricks

The plow generally rides close atop the rails, but must be lifted away from obstacles such as grade crossings and bridge rails. Similarly, wings are generally opened to throw snow well clear of the roadbed, but must be pulled in to avoid line side structures such as signals, signs, and switchbeds. Most New England-operated plows – some of which are a century old – can be lowered to just centimeters above the rail, and wings extended several feet outside the roadbed. Grade crossings are especially troublesome as highway vehicles pack ice into the flanges, and some plows are fitted with an extra device to carve deeper in the flanges.

This operation is basically overseen by the operating crew person in the plow, who keeps in constant radio communication with the locomotive engineer and operates the horn and headlight from the plow. Ideal plowing speed is 25 mph or faster, allowing the wings to throw the snow far off the roadbed, but also posing a high risk if a hard obstruction is hit. In addition, plow operations are almost never run without mechanical challenges, as most plow adjustments are powered by compressed air, which can be problematic in sub-arctic temperatures.

Plow cab provides few comforts. Left: Air pressure gauges monitor four large reservoir tanks below deck; three-inch iron feeder pipes indicate amount of pressurized air volume required to move wings. Tanks are fed by the locomotive compressor, which can sometimes struggle to maintain adequate pressure. Right: Cab amenities include climate control.

For years upon years , a gritty harmony has been kept between Mother Nature and New England’s railroads. The people behind the plow operations go without praise, while maintaining railroad movement and customer service through the toughest winters.