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Chasing the Western Wind

On Thursday morning, about 10:30 AM, I found myself on the platform of Roseville. I was waiting for the eastbound California Zephyr number 6. I planned to chase her all the way over Donner Pass down into Truckee, the last Zephyr stop in California. The journey was roughly 84 miles.

In this stretch, the California Zephyr stops at three locations: Roseville, Colfax, and Truckee. All three of these towns were created by the Transcontinental Railroad and they because important servicing sections for the Central Pacific and later Southern Pacific Railroads. Roseville is still an important division point where Union Pacific (the current owners) keep the snow removal fleet, including the rotary plowers, to keep Donner Pass open during periods of snowfall.

It shouldn’t be to hard to keep up with the Zephyr, because it’s average speed is 55 mph and it rarely reaches that as she climbs the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The speed limit on Highway 80, the interstate that parallels much of the railroad, has a speed limit of 65 mph.

The Zephyr pulls into Roseville. Roseville was once a major servicing point for Southern Pacific’s cab forward steam locomotives. The railyard had water and fuel tanks and two large roundhouses to turns the massive cab forwards. Today, steam has been replaced by diesel-electric motive power. Just to the left of 74, are service bays to maintain Union Pacific’s current locomotive fleet.

The eastbound number 6 pulled into Roseville on time. The train started it’s journey at 9:10 AM at Emeryville. I was excited to see that on point was an old “friend”, the General Electric P42DC locomotive, number 74. This was the locomotive that brought me from Denver, Colorado to Colfax, California, a few weeks ago. I had gotten to know her when I sketched her profile during a “fresh-air” smoking stop in Reno, Nevada. Her road number was also the year that my younger brother was born, 1974.

The number 6 filled the long platform at Roseville and I did a quick sketch of the eight car consist (featured sketch). The Zephyr was stopped at Roseville for about six minutes, which was enough time to capture the scene. With a quick retort from 74’s horn, the Zephyr started out of Roseville to slowly begin her assent of the Sierra Nevadas. I headed off to my car. The chase was on!

The Zephyr heading out of historic Colfax. The climb up the flank of the Sierra Nevada beginning in earnest at this point.

I made it to the Zephyr’s next scheduled stop, Colfax, with time to spare. I had time to have a quick bite to eat. I wanted to photograph the train from a different angle so I chose the bridge that takes Highway 174 over the two mainline tracks, just north of the historic Colfax passenger depot.

From the bridge I could see the “downtown” and look south down the mainline. Just north of the platform is a grade crossing where I detrained, two weeks before and my mother hugged me tight in the middle of Grass Valley Street, the Zephyr blocking off auto traffic.

A Union Pacific freight climbs the track at Yuba Pass.

My next encounter with Number 74 was at Yuba Pass, just off Highway 80. At this point I am really up in the Sierras. While the sky was clear I had to don a jacket as I waited for the California Zephyr to catch up to my location at Yuba Pass.

To the south of my location, the rails curved around a bend and to my north, the line disappears into tunnel number 35, the location of the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952. Now was the time of the waiting game, I had no way to gauge when the Zephyr would pass by.

I then heard a far off locomotive horn. It was difficult to locate and place the location of the train. Less than two minutes later I could hear the rumble of a diesel locomotive, climbing up the line. The Zephyr was approaching.

What appeared around the curve was not the Zephyr but a Union Pacific freight train with a consist of hopper cars. The train was headed up by three GE locomotives.

Freight trains now rule the rails in the United States with AMTRAK passenger service following in their wake. Freight certainly pays the bills and moving commerce across the the county has the right of rail, meaning that passenger service such as the California Zephyr are frequently behind schedule. On my journey on train number 6, we where two hours late when we finally arrived at Denver’s Union Station. The cause, we were behind Union Pacific freight trains in Nevada and Utah.

About 25 minutes later, train number 6 followed the UP freight heading east toward Donner Pass. I got and horn toot and a wave from the engineer!

About 25 minutes behind the UP freight, the Zephyr climbs up Yuba Pass with 74 on point.
The Zephyr curves into Tunnel number 35 at Yuba Pass.

I headed back to my car and returned to Highway 80 as both train and car climbed up towards Donner Pass. In about 20 minutes I pulled off the Highway at Historic Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road). On this road I passed the South Bay Ski Club’s lodge, where my parents met. I stopped at the grade crossing at Soda Springs. In front of me was the Soda Springs ski resort and further to the southeast is the resort Sugar Bowl, one of my favorite ski mountains in the Tahoe area. Both resorts where closed for the season.

The Union Pacific hopper freight passing through Soda Springs as it heads east to Norden, Donner Pass, and Truckee.

Stopped before the grade crossing was the freight train with the hopper consist waiting on mainline track 1. UP Number 8095 sounded her horn, triggering the crossing arms to lower. Any motorist wanting to cross the tracks would now have to wait a while for the freight to pass.

About 20 minutes later the Zephyr passed through the grade crossing, I got another wave from the engineer. At this point I think he was starting to recognize this Zephyr stalker!

I headed back to Highway 80 and climbed up and over Donner Summit and started my decent to Truckee. I looked over across Donner Lake to the far mountainside and I could see I was level with the UP freight. If I could beat it to Truckee I would be able to see both trains pass through Truckee. One would pass through Truckee while the other would stop to drop off and pick up passengers.

I had time to find a parking spot on Truckee’s main street, Donner Pass Road, pay for parking, and cross the three sets of tracks to position myself for the best light for photos. About 15 minutes after my wait, the Union Pacific freight blazed through Truckee.

Next the California Zephyr arrived. It stopped for a few minutes and with a short blast from the horn, the engineer released the brakes and throttled up the locomotive. With a last wave and a thumbs-up from the engineer, the Zephyr headed out of Truckee and California.

The Zephyr pulls into Truckee, eight minutes late. This is the last stop in California. Next stop for the Zephyr is Reno, Nevada.
One last look at the California Zephyr as it heads east towards it’s next stop, Reno, Nevada and eventually, Chicago.

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Rotary Snowplow: Workhouse of Donner Pass

Work on the railroad does to stop for weekends or holidays. And it certainly does not stop for inclement weather.

Some of the deepest snow can be found on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and at the summit of Donner Pass. This was the same pass that turned away members of the doomed Donner Party in the Winter of 1846. This pass would not defeat the Southern Pacific Railroad from crossing the pass.

To keep the pass open the railroad, when spreaders and flangers failed, SP used their most powerful snow fighting weapon, the rotary snowplow.

The rotary plow was invented by a dentist in Toronto, Canada in 1869. The plow consists of a circular sent of blades that spins. The rotary plow is not self-propelled but is pushed by a locomotive or most likely locomotives. As the spinning blade cuts through the snow drift, the engineer can control which side of the track the chute, behind the blade assembly, throws the snow. Left or right.

Not much has changed with the design of rotary plows save for powering the prime mover. All early rotaries where powered by steam but they were later converted to diesel or electric power. In fact, most of the current fleet of rotary plows, used by Union Pacific, where built in the 1920s or 30s although they have been retrofitted and rebuilt since then.

The current rotaries still use a steam generator to help prevent some of the moving parts from icing up and seizing.

Most railroads use flanger or spreader plows but these plows meet their match when trying to push heavy snow from tracks. This is where the rotary plow has the distinct advantage. It does not need to be pushed by force, instead the rotating blades cut through snow like a hot knife through butter. And the rotary can throw snow away from the track.

The downside to rotary plows is that they are expensive to maintain. And depending on snowfall, the plows may not be put into service every snow season. It may be even ten years before the rotary is called into action. The plows are also labor intensive to operate with an average crew size of 12. The standard consist of a Southern Pacific rotary train would consist of two rotary plows (one on each each so they can remove snow in both directions), a B Unit for each rotary to supply electrical power and air pressure, and two or three locomotives.

As a result, most railroads have gotten rid of their rotaries and many have been donated to serve as static displays. Three former Southern Pacific plows are on display. One in Roseville, Truckee, and Sacramento, at the California Railroad Museum.

A very interesting sign at the Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) rail yard in Roseville. I wonder if before this sign was installed, the Roseville Police got many calls about runaway locomotives!

What’s interesting about the rotary plow on static display at Roseville (SPMW 7221) is that it is near the tracks at the Union Pacific rail yard. The rotary was donated to the City of Roseville by Union Pacific in 2014. This is fitting because Roseville is where Union Pacific’s rotary plow fleet is based. As I looked down the tracks toward the rail yard, I noticed, on the far side where two rotaries.

Roseville has been a major division point on the Southern Pacific railroad. At it’s height, during the age of stream, the Roseville yard contained two roundhouses. Roundhouse No. 1 was a 32-stall roundhouse and Roundhouse No. 2 was specially built to house the larger Mallets (4-8-8-2) know as cab forwards. The turntable was large enough to turn these massive locomotives. These locomotive were reversed so the crew rode in the front and the exhaust behind them. This was to avoid asphyxiation in the long snow sheds over Donner Summit.

Union Pacific is one of the few Class I railroads that keeps a rotary fleet and they have the biggest fleet in America with six plows.

Two of Union Pacific’s six active rotary snowplows SPMW # 222 and 207.

The winter of 2017 was the third snowiest winter in recorded history on Donner Pass. The Union Pacific rotaries where put into use to clear the 13 feet deep snow to keep the line open between Roseville and Truckee.

Here is footage of rotaries at work at Donner Pass in February 2017. Credit to Jake Miille Photography.

Head on view of SPMW 207 at the Roseville rail yard. This provides a view of the circular, rotating blade that cuts through snow. Number 207 awaits the call to head up towards Donner Pass to clear the line of snow. Number 207 was built in 1926 and has since been upgraded. The “SPMW” stands for “South Pacific Maintenance of Way”.