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Hot Times on the High Iron
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Hot Times on the High Iron 19 February 04 by JD Santucci

Clearing Switches Weed Burner Jet Engines Blower
Switch Heaters Russell Plow Rotary Plows

Hot Times on the High Iron 19 February 04 Today it is a little more on Old Man Winter. Or perhaps we call this, a real snow job.

The snow began to fall with much more vigor and it was really starting to pile up. A fair amount of snow causes a great deal of problems with railroading as I was quickly learning in my new career. The snow was plugging up the switches in the yard. We would take switch brooms, made with metal instead of straw and sweep the snow out of the switch points (the moveable rail of the switch). One move made over that switch would quickly fill it right back in with more snow. This meant that every time we rolled any locomotive or cars over it, they would push snow right back into the switch. And this meant we had to sweep it out again and again.

Back to the switch brooms for a moment; these brooms have metal instead of straw as I mentioned. Each strand of metal on the broom head is much thicker than straw and far more rigid. Straw will not hold up against snow and also will not push it around as well. The metal does a much better job. The opposite end of the switch broom has a scraper made of metal, looking sort of like an ice scraper you would use on your cars windows. This scraper end is used to scrape packed in snow and ice out of the switch.

In cleaning out the switch when there are significant amounts of snow, you need to thoroughly clear the snow out of the switch points and also the tie plates and area around the opposite side of each point. In addition, you also need to clear the snow from around the base of the switch stand, the switch rod that connects the switch stand to the switch itself and also the bridle bar which connects the switch points themselves. Snow builds up under, on top of and around all of this apparatus and when it packs in there can make the switch next to, if not completely impossible to operate.

Now some guys will try to operate a switch when there is some accumulation in the points without cleaning the snow or ice out first. And more often than not, their only success is in creating more work. In trying the points to fit up snug against the stock rail, they will pack that snow or ice in there. This snow pack usually prevents the switch from being able to line all the way over. Usually either the handle will not go all the way into the fully lined position or, it will go over with a huge fight but then leave a gap in the switch points.

When a switch is gapped, there is just that, a gap between the points and the stock rail in which they fit against. If allowed to proceed over this gap, a derailment could occur. The flange of the wheel can easily fit in between the gapped switch points literally separating the points from the stock rail. This is often referred to as splitting the switch. The wheels will then attempt to follow the path of least resistance until they run out of rail and then drop off onto the ground.

If you try to line the switch with snow in it and cannot succeed, you have to restore it back to the route it was lined before you began this operation and then get the broom and clean it out. Of course now you have all that stuff packed in there good and tight and you'll have to work your butt off to get it cleared out. And sometimes that broom is not good enough. Sometimes you have to get some heat into the thing to help melt and clear out the ice and really hard packed snow. This usually requires the use of fusees (flares). You have to light a fusee or two and use them like a torch back and forth in the areas where the snow has packed in there to melt it out.

Ah yes, theres nothing like the fragrant aroma of sulfur burning at extremely high temperatures to clean out the sinuses. And of course being that this is actually now a stick of molten sulfur you have in your hand, it certainly has an incredible effect when the drippings from it splash onto you gloves, clothing or boots. This burning stick of chemistry set is also extremely bright as it burns. So after carefully watching what you are doing so as to not burn or incinerate yourself, you now have case of fusee blindness as it were. You really cannot see very well, if at all for a few moments, particularly if it is dark out.

So after using high temperatures and back breaking labor to clear out the switch, you get it to line over for your route. Now just imagine having to put forth this effort every time you need to operate a switch. As I'm certain you have already surmised, this additional activity begins to slow the pace of the operation to a crawl.

As I mentioned, sometimes you will get a gap in the switch points even after clearing all of the snow out. This tends to occur quite often under such weather conditions. If a section man (Track Department worker) is handy, he can usually lend some assistance in getting the gap cleared up. Usually a few whacks with a spike maul against the stubborn point will move it over enough to close the gap. Should that fail, it may require excavation of the snow from the switch which may take some time.

If no section man is available and the gap is not too great, you can attempt to use the flange of the wheels to force the stubborn point into submission. In this case you very slowly move your engine or cut of cars up against the switch points. I mean very, very slowly. What you are trying to do is have the flange catch the switch point and then shove it against the stock rail to close the gap. To put this move into perspective, this can be akin to using a 32 oz ball peen hammer to make a precision adjustment to the remote control on your television. When it works, you'll usually take the first entire car over the switch point very slowly to make certain you have that point pushed up snug against that stock rail. If you don't and you pick up speed too quick, the cars, they go kerplunk.

In years past whenever the weather went to hell, the railroad would usually bring in a supply of section men and their foremen to be on hand to assist you in clearing out switches. Oftentimes they would assign a guy to your job and he stayed with you all day or all night to lend a hand in clearing out the switches and making any adjustments as necessary. Of course in the present time we are providing for all of those widows and orphans that own all the stock instead of taking care of the operation. The industry tends to have far less people during the worst part of the winter to assist than in my early years on the job.

It used to be that once a gang of section men would clear out all of the switches on the lead, they used to place smudge pots filled with fuel oil under the switch points and then light them. These smudge pots created heat which helped melt the snow and ice that was getting forced into the switch points by train movements or that was still falling from the heavens above. Unfortunately, this was not one of the safest methods available of snow fighting available. Back in the days they were still being used, I witnessed several of them actually blow up from overheating. Fortunately though, in all of the times I observed such an explosion, nobody ever got injured or killed. Today, the use of smudge pots in this manner is against the rules. I have not seen them being used since the early 80s, so I'm guessing the rules were changed back then.

Upon my arrival at work that evening, there was already chaos. This latest blast of winter was now piled up on top of the significant snowfall we received the previous evening. Bill Adams, the Chicago Division Roadmaster had his gang of section men working like ants trying to battle the effects of the storm. An attempt was made to use intense heat to clear the snow away. The decision was made to fire up the old weed burner and the Maintenance of Way forces were using this machine in the attempt to burn the snow away.

For those of you unfamiliar with this machine, the weed burner did just that, burned weeds. This piece of on track machinery would roll along the right of way with burners using superheated air to literally scorch the weeds, brush and other growth along the right of way into oblivion. As a kid living along side the old New York Central, I vividly recall seeing one of these machines in action every summer. This machine would roll along the main track which ran along side our house. Actually it wasn't right along side; it was about one hundred feet or so from the house. Anyway, we would be in the backyard as the weed burner rolled by doing its thing. From the hundred feet or so away that we were located from this machine, we could easily feel the heat being generated.

Generally there were not actual balls of fire coming out of the tubes at the rear of the weed burner, but the heat being created was doing quite the number on everything it encountered. I've heard stories from old machine operators of starting all kinds of fires along the right of way, including a few ties here and there. I'd be willing to bet a few employees also received some burns. These reasons were probably enough to get the weed burners banned over twenty years ago. While the initial effects were readily apparent after the passing of the weed burner, several days later you could really observe the final objective of the operation. The area along the right of way would turn brown as everything was thoroughly burned out. This was not your typical brush fire; intense searing heat had been applied literally scorching everything in its path. The weeds did not grow back for the most of the entire summer and early fall.

Talk about a scorched earth policy.

So the weed burner was being used in the attempt to blast the snow out the switches. They did have some success in using it, but this was the weed burners last hurrah as it was dismantled the following summer.

Back in those days, the hurricane jet blower that so many railroads operate today was a relatively new tool in battling snow. MoPac did not have one assigned to Chicago. I'm not certain they even owned one at all in 1979. The Louisville & Nashville did have one and it was located in Evansville, IN. Being that Yard Center was a joint agency with the L&N the jet blower was summoned for assistance. The snow problem in Chicago would also create problems for the L&N so it was in their best interest to lend their jet blower to the MoPac.

The jet blower uses a jet engine, hence the name. The engine is mounted on the front of the machine with the back of the engine or exhaust end facing out. On the back end of the engine is a moveable hatch. This hatch may be raised and lowered and also pivoted from side to side as well to adjust the direction of the exhaust and heat generated from the revving jet engine. An incredible amount of exhaust gas and heat is generated. I was told something like 10,000 cubic feet of air per minute came blasting out of the chute. Herein lies one of the drawbacks of the jet blower. It will send loose objects lying along the right of way hurtling through the air be it ballast, spikes, tie plates and even old brake shoes. One guy I worked with had the windshield on his car broken when the jet blower threw an old brake shoe lying on the ground into the air. When the brake shoe landed, it did so with a direct hit on this guys front windshield.

We affectionately dubbed this machine the 747. Whether it was idling or being used at high speed rpms for the service in which it was designed, it sounded exactly like what it was; a jet engine. If you closed your eyes and listened, you'd think you were at the airport listening to planes taking off. And then there was that familiar smell of jet fuel and exhaust.

The exhaust of the jet blower will both blast snow and ice away and also melt what remains behind. Nobody is allowed to be in front of or near the sides of the blower for this reason. Unfortunately though, when melting everything in its path, the now liquefied snow and ice does not all blow completely clear of the switches. Some of that liquid will drain back into the switch area and as it is exposed to the cold temperatures will begin to freeze. When this occurs, the switches will then freeze up solid requiring yet more assistance from the section crews.

Some railroads have employed the use of mini blowers as it were. This a length of hose with a glad hand on one end to allow it to be connected to one of the multiple unit main reservoir lines on the end of a locomotive, The other end is connected to a length of pipe with a valve affixed. By adjusting this valve allows for the employee using it to regulate the air flow or stop it all together. The use of main reservoir air from a locomotive, usually in the 130 to 140 psi range, through this hose and pipe provides for pretty constant supply of air to blow snow out of switches. Such an arrangement is often used in remote or outlying locations where section men are not readily available. While not always as effective as the jet blower, these blowers do lend quite a hand when clearing out switches.

Some switches, normally remotely controlled power switches or main track spring switches will employ the use of permanent heating devices. There are several different types of heaters used. Some employ the use of heated forced air. A heater fired by natural or LP gas uses a high velocity fan to push this heated air through duct work that aims it at the switch points and other hardware to melt snow and ice allowing for continued operation of the switches even in the most adverse of weather conditions.

Another type of weather beater is the switch burner. This method uses gas fired heaters mounted along side the rails. A series of gas jets along the length of the heater cabinets ignite and provide a steady flame which then heats up the stock rails and switch points melting the snow and ice away from the moveable parts of the switch. There is also an electric heater that uses electrical energy to operate it. This heater uses elements mounted on the rails that will glow when electricity is applied which, like the burners, heats up the rails to melt away the snow and ice.

These switch heaters or burners can be operated either manually or automatically. In most cases they are operated by a Control Operator, Dispatcher or even a train crew. The manually operated ones are usually done so by a Control Operator or Dispatcher operated by entering a code into their computerized control system, or by turning a switch on a control panel. In some instances a train crew using the keypad on the locomotive radio may enter a code number which will send a command message to the control system at a specific location to start or stop the switch heaters. While I am certain they are out there, the only automatically operated type of heaters I've ever observed were used on the South Shore. There were sensor units at the sight of certain spring switches that would activate the electric heaters when they detected an accumulation of snow. Now with all this snow piling up and covering the switches, what about everything else you may ask? Nothing is immune from the forces of winter. The snow also begins to build up on the switching leads and all areas where employees must walk as well as all roadways used by motorized vehicles, cars and trucks. The snow also piles up on the catwalks of locomotives and cars. The accumulation of large amounts of snow in these locations can also interfere with the operation. Walking through knee high or even waist high snow can be time consuming or virtually impossible at times.

The main line was not exempt from the problems of snow either. Cuts where the track passed through often filled up with snow. In some locations it was piled up so deep that a passing freight train could not plow through it. This was when various types of snowplows were summoned to service. Most of the MoPacs locomotives had snowplows attached to the front pilot, but not all of them. While these plows helped tremendously, when the snow became too deep, they could not dig through.

A Russell plow was assigned to Yard Center for just the occasions. A Russell plow is a large snowplow blade, probably fifteen feet or so high mounted on a rail car. This car features a cab for the plow operator. The car itself is also heavily ballasted to help keep it on the rail. The ice and snow that pack in can actually cause the wheels of a plow to climb off the rail. One, two or more locomotives would be coupled to the plow to shove it along the main track. It often took a great deal of horsepower and tractive effort to shove the plow through the deep snow.

The first time I was ever aboard a train that plowed snow just using the locomotives and train, I was astonished. As you are rolling along at 40 MPH or more and blast through those drifts, it all comes right back in your face. The snow will hurtle right over the nose and against the windows and doors on the cab of the engine. You see nothing but white; this is a manmade whiteout.

Oftentimes when plowing this much snow, it will pile up against the front cab door and you cannot open it. Sometimes some of it will also pile up against the rear cab door blocking it closed as well. While this phenomenon has never happened to me, I know many a crew that had to be dug out of the cab after a run. In order to keep the whistle on the locomotive from filling up with snow and freezing while plowing snow, the Engineer will sound that whistle continuously. The 100 psi or so of air being pushed through the flutes of the whistle will usually, but not always blow some of the snow right back out. Sometimes that snow packs in there though and you have to light a fusee or two and shove them into the flutes to melt the snow.

Some railroads use a plastic cover with an elastic band around it that fits snuggly over each flute of the whistle to help keep snow from getting in there in the first place. Other roads mounted the whistles towards the rear of the unit, usually right above the radiator to keep the snow from packing in. As you are plowing the snow with your entire train in tow, the snow creates resistance. It will start to slow you down. Of course the rest of the train is still trying to maintain the same speed you were going when you began to plow. The slack will begin to run in against the engines. The boys in the back would get banged around a bit. When I became an Engineer I learned to alert the tail end crew when we were beginning to plow through significant snow.

A casualty of plowing snow is often the traction motors of the locomotive. As the snow is flying over the cab, some of that snow is sucked in by the air intakes. Enough of the snow may get through the filters intact getting sucked into the traction motor cooling air ductwork. As most of you are likely aware, moisture and electricity tend not to get along well. The result of this mixture is oftentimes a high voltage ground. The ground relay on the locomotive is kicked and you can get it to reset three times. After the fourth time, you lose. MoPac did not subscribe to the use of traction motor cut outs, so if you suffered a high voltage ground in of the traction motors, that engine was out of commission.

In that brutal winter of 78-79, the Burlington Northern brought in rotary plows from their regions of the railroad were huge snowfall was commonplace. BN wanted to use the rotaries to clear up the main line and the yards. A rotary plow is awesome to observe in action. The rotary plow is essentially a giant snow blower. There is a slight difference though aside from the massive size. Instead of the augers rotating from front to rear, a rotary plow will rotate from left to right or right to left. A locomotive is coupled to the plow to provide power to make the augers rotate. This locomotive is used for no other purpose in the plow train other than to provide power for the rotary plow. It takes a great deal of energy to make that auger spin and cut through heavy and deep snow and then to throw it off to the sides. Several other locomotives will be coupled behind the power locomotive to shove the plow forward. When shoving the rotary plow, you are not moving at much speed. Too much pressure can cause the auger or the shaft it is mounted on to break. And like with a Russell plow, you can derail a rotary plow as well.

And so it goes.


Hot Times on the High Iron, 2003 by JD Santucci
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