is endlessly modernizing itself with the help of the
computer age. We've seen changes across the board from
the elimination of the caboose, the building of
locomotives, to communications.
However, if you look carefully some historic traditions
still exist. Witnessing some of these classic traditions
at work is a definate must for anyone who appreciates a
On Thursday, February 12, 2004 I was able to tag along
and document one of the oldest traditions on the ONR
which is a company experienced in dealing with the
assorted perils of a typical Northeastern Ontario
Plowing snow from the rails is a tradition as old as
railroading itself. Today we'll be plowing our way up
the Island Falls Subdivision 186 miles to Moosonee
following the tracks of the famous Polar Bear Express
throwing in the added challenge of clearing a path of
both freshly fallen and drifting snow along with ice
embedded between the rails.
Our plow is Cochrane Yard's own ONT 560. Our Plow Crew
are two of Maintenance of Way's experienced track
professionals with alot of years under their belts
Isadore (Izzy) and Bob. Our Running Crew are a couple of
old buddies of mine Don (our Engineman) and Derek (our
Our journey begins in the early hours of February 12th.
A snow plow (ONT 555) is shipped into Cochrane via 514
the night before to replace Cochrane's ONT 560 which was
burning alot of oil in it's diesel powered generator
which is responsible for the plow's heat. But, upon
inspection ONT 555 has some major problems of her own
meaning that she'll be pulled from service and spotted
on the Rip for repairs. Did this cancel the Plow Work?
It's time to improvise. With the oil problem in 560,
it's decided to bring extra oil on board just in case.
Isadore will be monitoring the oil situation during our
northbound trip. With everything loaded, inspected, and
tested, our consist of Plow 560, GP38-2 1805, GP9 1603,
and caboose 123 pull out of town. Bob lets the Running
Crew know that we'll be testing the plows flanger at the
end of the cautionary limit. We arrive at the limit and
Bob drops the flanger as our consist rolls ahead. We
stop, back up to see how the flanger's doing and
everything looks good. We journey forth.
We approach a crossing at Mile 1.89 and Bob lays on the
horn. This is where I learned my first lesson in
plowing. The two men scream something. With the noise of
the horn, the generator, the sound of the air lifting
the flanger, and the racket of big chunks of snow
pounding our windshield it was a little hard to
understand what they were saying. Once things quieted
down I immediately ask Bob what the yelling was about.
What the boys were yelling was "Up with the nose!" A
command that is yelled just to make sure that both
operators hear it.
On North American Railroads, there is a sign posted (see
one of those signs
), which warns a plow of an obstacle between the rails
such as switches, crossings, safety rails on bridges,etc.
The flanger must clear these obstacles. This is very
important since not lifting the flanger could cause
major damage or even worse, a derailment. With a couple
thousand horsepower behind you, things can get messy if
your plow hits the ground. So, to keep things safe, the
command "Up with the nose!" is yelled just in case one
operator misses the sign. Once the obstacled area is
passed, the command "Down with the nose!" is yelled just
in case the operator forgets to lower the flanger.
The operation of the plow's wings is a little quieter
but nevertheless just as important, meaning you still
have to pay serious attention. When passing switches,
crossings, and bridges, an extended plow wing can do
alot of damage, so the air powered wings are brought in
momentarily to clear these and other trackside obstacles
(there are warning signs for this also. See one
Another responsibility of the Plow's Crew is to forward
key mileage points to the Running Crew for things such
as Slow Orders, clearances through a Section's
territory, etc., since the Running Crew can't see a
thing. You'll hear phrases like "Island Falls one mile",
or the Running Crew will transmit a Milepost for the
Plow Crew to look out for because of Slow Orders or a
Section's Limits. All in all, there's quite a bit of
action up there in that Plow cupola.
We're ordered to meet the southbound Little Bear (622)
at Island Falls, located at Mile 43. We proceed in the
hole and come to a stop. These things aren't equipped
with bathrooms and this stop allows the Plow Crew to use
1805's facilities if need be. Bob and Isadore quickly
get to work; Bob shovelling off the snow in front of our
windshield and cleaning the windows, while Isadore
checks out the oil situation on our generator.
With that done, we nibble on our prepacked lunches and
wait. Within a few moments in the form of a rolling
snowstorm, the southbound Little Bear rockets through.
We're back to work.
Everyone is back in position as Derek trudges ahead to
line the mainline switch. That's not happening. The snow
and ice has pretty much solidified the north switch lock
making it next to impossible to open. Bob jumps in to
see what he can do and with the help of a fusee and some
sheer brute force, the switch is free. Bob boards again
and we enter the main.
We venture on through the many sights I've seen in the
pleasantness of summertime aboard the Polar Bear, but
now witness covered with a winter's accumulation of snow
and ice. The most fascinating spot for me was the Moose
River Crossing at Mile 142.5. I've been to Moose River 3
times in the last couple of years and it was quite
interesting to see these familiar surroundings from the
bridge, to the bunkhouse, to the Hi-Rail garage we
called home covered in snow. We raise the flanger, bring
in the wings and roll across the bridge.
We pound our way north for another 44 miles arriving
into Moosonee Yard in the afternoon. The plowing is
done. It's time to sit back and enjoy the ride home. We
first journey past the Moosonee Express Freight Shed to
the Yard's Wye where our entire consist is turned. While
this process is being carried out Bob and Izzy pack up
everything for the trip in preparation to off-load it
into caboose 123. Plow 560 is spotted on the Main and
the consist of our both locomotives and caboose run
around positioning 560 to the tail end. We load
everything to 123 and sit back for our 186 mile journey
back to Cochrane.
Our van has been warming up since our morning departure
from Cochrane. By the time we got in it you could have
fried an egg on the table. Time for some ventilation.
Bob and Izzy swing open the doors on each end of the
caboose to create a breeze. Within a few minutes she's
cooled down to a more comfortable temperature. Bob and I
head to the cupola and drink a few bottles of water
since heat rises and heads directly up to us but
eventually the cupola cooled down too. Isadore decides
to stick to the main floor of 123. We cruise along
chit-chatting amongst ourselves and occasionally with
Don and Derrick in 1805. When things get a little quiet
and the Running Crew figures we're sleeping, the
headlight of 1603 (which ironically is aimed directly at
the cupola) is switched on high with the radio echoing
comments like, "Are you guys asleep back there?"
We're on the home stretch as Izzy takes a moment to show
me a spot located around Mile 3 of the Island Falls
Subdivision, which apparently is a major winter problem.
Due to wind directions, the lack of trees, and the fact
that the track is below the ground level, snow in this
section can sometimes be as high as a train itself and
is steadily being monitored and cleared of snow all
winter long. In fact, when June rolls along, you can
sometimes still see snow here.
We arrive at Cochrane at around 2100 hrs. We're all
packed up and detrain on the Main while Don and Derek
spot the caboose & plow in the Yard followed by the
spotting of their power on the Shop Track for the
Bob and Izzy head home
because in a few hours these guys will be back at work
handling their daily Maintenance of Way duties which
could be pretty much anything.
This February 12th trip to Moosonee on "Plow Work 1805"
showed me alot. It showed me that working Maintenance of
Way is not just a job, but a commitment and is not for
the faint hearted. It can get a little scary riding in a
63000 pound "projectile" doing 30 miles per hour with a
few thousand horses nipping at your butt while huge
chunks of ice are ripped from the tracks flying into
your face. It also showed me that you really have to
know your stuff when working M of W since pretty much
anything can happen. Because when things screw up, folks
are sometimes looking at you to fix it.
I'll wrap up this article with a great big "Thank You"
going out to Elke & Bob, Kevin, Izzy, Don, and Derek for
allowing me to witness first hand the workings of a
"Plow Work" through the Great White North. A true eye
opening experience if i've ever seen one.