Nevada Northern Railway
National Historic Landmark      Ely, NV



"At the Throttle"

A Series of articles on the Nevada Northern Railway
By Mark Bassett, Executive Director, NNRY


Snow, Steam and Pink Shower Caps
March 2010

It has snowed and snowed and snowed here in the high desert of east central Nevada. According to the National Weather Service, Ely received 20.4 inches of snow in December 2009, which was 13 inches above normal. December’s snow fall ranks as the 9th snowiest December on record. And then there was January with even more snow. Unofficially, we have received another 7.8 inches of snow. That’s officially 28.2 inches and have I mentioned Ruth? There’s more snow there which means there’s more snow at Keystone. And then there are the drifts.  

We’re all tired of the snow. Operating a century old complex in the 21st century always has its own set of challenges. Factor in almost three feet of snow and it just gets that much more interesting and the challenges increase astronomically.

We have a standing policy that if we get more than six inches of snow we run locomotive 204 over the line to keep the line open. Why? Well for starters, locomotive 204 has snow plows on both ends, where it may sound cool to take a 360,000 pound locomotive out in the snow, believe me it is no joy ride. First we inspect the track twice a week, every week. We normally use the hi-railer which is a pick up truck with railroad wheels on it. When the snow is too deep, the hi-railer can’t make it, so locomotive 204 is called out.  

Secondly, over the years, we’ve learned a lot about snow and ice. When snow first falls, its light and fluffy, unless of course, its wet and heavy or some combination of the two. About twenty-four hours after the snow fall the snow starts packing down. Then it starts going through freeze - thaw – freeze cycles and then changes from snow to ice. And ice covering the rails shuts the railroad down.

With Polar Expresses, the Fire and Ice Fireworks Express, the Rotary Fishing Derby trains and then two weekends of winter photo shoots it is imperative that we keep the railroad open.

Volunteers and Staff

Snow, snow and more snow and where are the rails!

So to keep the railroad open, every spare hand gets a switch broom before we go anywhere. With the switches covered in snow, every switch needs to be shoveled and swept out before anything can go through it. This means, you’re shoveling out an area about 7 feet wide by 12 feet long per switch or 84 square feet. To go from the enginehouse to the train you need to go through three switches. To take a train up the hill and back you have six more switches if it’s a diesel powered train. Add a steam locomotive and you add five more switches that need to be swept out. Then factor in the photo shoots and the need to use most tracks in the yard, you have at least another eleven switches to sweep. So by the beginning of February you need sweep at least twenty-five switches or shovel 2,100 square feet of ground. And to make matters even more interesting because the snow was so deep, locomotive 204 would push snow back over cleaned switches or the wind would start blowing and fill in the switches faster than you could keep them open. So you sweep them out repeatedly.

Another joy of operating locomotive 204 when it is snowing is the diesel horns. In the heavy snow we got, the horns would fill up with snow so when you blew the horn for the crossing, instead of a deep mellow bellow you got a high pitched squeal like you were pulling a cat’s tail. And there were a few times that you couldn’t even get the cat’s squeal. So what to do? Ed our diesel guru had a thought - shower caps. Cover the ends of the air horns with shower caps! That should work, right? And of course we needed them right away because we were going to head out again. So a call when to the dispatcher, “Engineer 204 to NN Ry Distpatcher, over”.
          “NNRy Dispatcher to Engineer 204, over”
          “Engineer 204 to dispatcher, we need six large pink shower caps delivered to the enginehouse, ASAP, over”. I figured if we needed shower caps why not pink ones?
          “Dispatcher to Engineer 204, you need six large pink shower caps delivered to the enginehouse ASAP, is that correct?,over”
          “Engineer 204 to dispatcher, correct we need them ASAP, 204 out”
          “Dispatcher to engineer 204, understood, out.”

I have to confess, that I was disappointed. I was expecting a little more byplay or questioning. But no, within thirty minutes, we had six large pink shower caps delivered to the enginehouse like it was an everyday occurrence. (Of course this opens a whole bunch of questions, but we’ll save then for another day.) The shower caps went on and voilà – you have diesel horns that work in a heavy wet snowstorm; just another boring day at the old Nevada Northern.

The on January 23, the snow had stopped and it was time to take locomotive 204 up the hill. Al was the engineer, with the rest of the shop staff and track department going out to help. Head out of the enginehouse clean a switch, head to the main, clean another switch, start up the mainline to the first road crossing and a new problem - the road crossing. Whenever the tracks cross a road there are flange ways that allow the train wheels to cross a street. No big deal until the flange ways fill up with ice and snow. And if the flange way is filled up with ice it can lift a locomotive off the tracks and derail it. So the crews drop off of the locomotive and inspect the flange ways and clean then out. Once the flange ways are cleaned out, the locomotive is eased over the crossing. Once across, everyone climbs aboard and locomotive 204 continues up the hill.

The deep snow start piling up on the front of the locomotive, but with 1,750 horses under the long hood the snow has to be really deep to slow locomotive 204 down. But the snow does build up and periodically, you need to stop and shovel the snow away from the locomotive. Where the snow doesn’t stop the locomotive it does interfere with the brakes and it makes it difficult to stop the locomotive.  

The brakes on locomotive 204 are metal brake shoes that are pushed against the steel wheels. The deep snow packs into the space between the brake shoe and wheel and guess what you can’t stop the locomotive right away. That 336,000 pounds of locomotive just keeps going until friction and pressure melt the snow and the brakes can grab the wheels.

Up at Keystone where the snow is the deepest and the grade is the steepest (about 2%) this gets really exciting. You start down the hill, apply the brakes and nothing happens. You’re in the cab of a huge locomotive heading down hill and you begin to wonder just where you’re going to stop – Lane City, East Ely or somewhere on the other side of the valley when you hit the up grade. Actually you stop a lot sooner than that but the first time it happens, the old pucker factor redlines.

After digging out the switches at Keystone the crew heads back to town. And other than the fact it takes a lot more time than normal to stop locomotive 204, the other spooky thing is that the rails are still buried under snow. Locomotive 204’s plow doesn’t go down to rail height, so the track is still buried under snow and it looks light you’re gliding on the snow as you head downhill.

The deep snow also caused problems for steam locomotive 93 that we never experienced before. After the passage of locomotive 204 and after a few days of freeze – thaw – freeze, we took 93 up the hill. The deep snow didn’t bother the drivers or the plow. But what did happen was because locomotive 93’s cylinders are so low and her cylinder cocks are even lower, the ice banged up the cylinder clocks valves. Now you couldn’t close the cylinder cocks. Thankfully, it looked a lot worse than it was. Locomotive 93 was taken into the shops and everything was straightened out. To insure this didn’t happen again, ice scrappers were welded to the pilot to protect the cylinder cocks.

The deep snow also caused two derailments. The first was with locomotive 204. Locomotive 204 was heading to the depot to power on of the last Polar Express trains when she picked a switch point and split the switch. What this means is that instead of going down one track or the other she went down neither and dropped off the rails. So there we are. We have a 360,000 pound locomotive with one truck off the rails. Passengers wanting to go the North Pole. And as luck would have it, the switch where 204 derailed blocked the enginehouse lead. Now no other locomotives could be used either for the train or to pull locomotive 204 back on the track. Great!

Well, if nothing else, the staff and the volunteers of the railroad never say die. It was decided to try the easy way first. A bunch of joint bars was gathered up. A joint bar is the bar that joins two pieces of rail together. These are heavy metal bars that we laid on their sides and built two inclined planes. It was hoped that the derailed truck could be pulled back on the track by the rear truck that was still on the track. Every thing was ready, the signal was given and ever so slowly locomotive 204 started moving backwards. And ever so slowly the derailed truck started heading towards the rail. First one wheel set, gets back on. One on, two more to go, then the second wheel set climbs back on the rail. Finally, with fingers crossed, the third wheel set is re-railed. Hallelujah!!!

An inspection of the switch showed that because of the freeze-thaw cycle, the point was pushed slightly away from the running rail. This allowed 204 to derail. Quick action by the locomotive crew stopped the locomotive quickly. That minimized that the distance that the locomotive needed to move to be re-railed. Then with some ingenuity and a simple tool, locomotive 204 was back on the rails. After the excitement, locomotive 204 headed for its train, coupled up and left about twenty minutes late.

The second derailment happened while we were making up the photo trains. We had spent the day making up trains, dealing with the deep snow. We were on the last move one more coupling and we were done! It was shove move, which means the locomotive is pushing a cut of cars. I was on the point - riding an ore car and all of a sudden I noticed I was taking a left turn where no left turn existed.

The deep wet snow had started rolling under the car. Just like when you make a snowman, you start with a snowball, push it around, it gets larger and larger and larger. That’s what happened. As we were pushing the car, the snow underneath started rolling, getting larger, larger, and larger until it lifted the rail car off the track. Nuts!

We tried to re-rail it no such luck. Instead of fighting with it so more, we left it. Since we do a steam crane demonstration for the photo shoots, It was decided to use the derailed car and re-rail it. We did and it worked.
This winter threw one challenge after another at us - deep snow, ice, winds, cold, derailments, more snow, more ice, and more wind. But we over came all of the challenges. We carried thousands of passengers this winter. The equipment, the staff and volunteers were up to the challenges and exceeded them.

But it never ends, next is mud season. Hopefully the ground will dry out before the first train on April 3, 2010.