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Today's railroading 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 little history.

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 winter.

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 Conductor).

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? Nope.

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 Hostler's attention.

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.