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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Keeping the BNSF tracks cleared and Christmas presents coming

BNSF Railway’s rotary snowplows weigh more than 150 tons and are equipped with an 11-foot plow that can cut through deep snowdrifts, clearing the tracks.  (Courtesy BNSF)
BNSF Railway’s rotary snowplows weigh more than 150 tons and are equipped with an 11-foot plow that can cut through deep snowdrifts, clearing the tracks. (Courtesy BNSF)

Wesley Pruitt oversees between about 450 and 500 miles of BNSF railroad track in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

That’s an endless, everyday task that involves people and technology searching out issues before they become problems.

Among the tools at his disposal is something called a geometry car.

Though it looks more or less like a regular passenger rail car, the geometry car does fulfill some of the promise of its fanciful name, which makes it sound like something Inspector Gadget would drive.

Outfitted with a host of high-tech features, including ground-penetrating radar, the geometry car can be deployed with or without a human occupant to suss out all kinds of subtle and potentially problematic irregularities in the system, according to Courtney Wallace, a BNSF Railway spokeswoman.

The effort to keep trains chugging along is complicated in the Inland Northwest by the topography, Pruitt said.

“We’ve got a lot of heavy trains ascending and descending steep grades,” he said.

And then there are all the bodies of water to cross – whether it’s Lake Pend Oreille, Latah Creek or the Columbia River – and the spans that have to be kept in good working order to ensure the trains can make it from one side to the other.

Another factor is the weather, especially snow. And especially this time of year, which is “peak season” for BNSF, Pruitt said.

While what’s visible on rail cars is most often raw materials like lumber and coal, the container cars that pass through Spokane each day are filled with workout equipment, water, TVs, gaming systems, home office supplies, cleaning products and basically any other finished consumer product you can imagine. That includes, of course, “all of those gifts you’re ordering online,” Wallace said.

To prepare for the meeting of the most difficult conditions and highest demand of the year, Pruitt said there’s a lot to do “before winter even happens,” including passing out “advance-traction footwear” to crews and walking the tracks’ right-of-ways in search of anything that might get in the way of snow-clearing equipment.

The railroad also has on hand what Pruitt calls “rapid response teams” who are ready to deploy with tools and parts to repair a train or a track in need.

The most important thing to keep clear when the snow starts flying, Pruitt said, are the switches, which control where trains go when multiple tracks meet. Regular pickups with snowplows are employed to clear snow piled atop them, and different tools are used to melt ice and snow that could stop the switches from switching.

When snow gets deep, locomotives can be fitted with plows that will create a channel for trains to pass through.

BNSF also employs rotary plows that circulate and blow especially deep powder up and out so it “really gets it away from the track structure,” Wallace said. That heavy-duty option is stationed at just a handful of sites, in Minneapolis, in Lincoln and Alliance, Nebraska, and in Glendive, Montana, but the rotary plows can be deployed to remove snowdrifts far from their home bases.

If passes in western Montana or North Idaho become impassable, Wallace said, the rotary plow from Glendive can clear the tracks and keep the trains running.

And there’s another crucial element in the rail system, of course: the people who operate the trains.

Railroaders, like truckers and flight crews, can only work a certain number of hours in a row. That often means crews have to switch off at some remote point between stations.

When rural roads haven’t been plowed, it can be difficult to get the relief workers to the trains. To make that possible, BNSF has restored a couple of passenger rail cars that it keeps along its northern tier, between Chicago and the West Coast, and uses to shuttle crews wherever they’re needed, if there’s no other way to get there. These snow coaches, as they’re known, can hold up to 40 people.

While the Inland Northwest has experienced a mild winter so far and BNSF hasn’t yet had to deploy these more drastic measures in the region, Wallace said they are key to keeping BNSF’s expansive system – and the countless Christmas gifts it carries – moving.

“It’s very much like your circulatory system,” Wallace said. “If you have a blockage in your arm, it’s going to affect the rest of your body.”

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