Union Pacific Broncos Pave the Way for Trains Over California Mountainside, Scouting for Rock and Mudslides

Broncos California Mudslide Main Image | MR

Union Pacific’s specialized Broncos ride the rails scouting for rockslides and mudslides in Northern California that could impact rail operations.

It's not quite the same as jumping onto a bucking horse at a rodeo, but some days, members of Union Pacific’s Maintenance of Way team – often called Broncos – certainly take a wild ride to keep the railroad’s line through California’s mountainside clear.

“From record snow at Donner Pass to rain, falling rocks and wildfires, there’s always something going on – and our workforce here is like no other,” said Jeremy Ritch, general director-Maintenance of Way.

Serving Union Pacific Railroad for more than 20 years, Ritch oversees more than 650 people across a terrain where mudslides and rockslides are a standard occurrence. On this Northern California territory, the highly specialized Bronco position is crucial to maintaining both railroad and community safety during unstable weather conditions.

“They’ll respond and do whatever it takes to keep the mountain open for rail traffic,” Ritch said. “They take an extreme amount of pride in their territory.”

The intense Bronco position gets its name from a time when railroaders used Ford Broncos to navigate the terrain. Today, employees are equipped with specialized trucks called hyrails that allow them to drive on the street and ride the rails. Broncos drive two miles in front of trains, escorting them through canyons during severe weather. When they spot a rock or mudslide, they alert the train crew to stop and then call for equipment to clear the area.

“The weather’s bad, the rail is wet, the visibility is low and it’s just as nasty as it can get out there,” Ritch said. “We make certain the people in this position are highly trained.”

Craig Miller, a senior manager-Track Maintenance, who has been with Union Pacific for more than 25 years, oversees and trains employees to become Bronco specialists. Miller and his crew work diligently to keep the mountain operations safe and secure.

“Working outdoors with the crew is the best part of the job,” Miller said. “There are some great people here.”

The specialized team was put to the test when the 2021 Dixie Fire made work in the territory even more critical. The fire was active for 104 days and spanned 70 miles up the canyon, producing massive amounts of debris on the tracks. The fire’s long-term effects are still evident, including unexpected shifts in the canyon’s landscape. Union Pacific’s team notes these locations and works frequently to address them. Ritch said it’s a never-ending task.

“We maintain a database of debris locations and monitor areas where rocks have fallen,” Ritch explained. “To mitigate possible complications on the railroad and ensure the safety of our crews and mountain community, we bring in outside contractors to rappel up the cliff walls and safely remove loose rocks.”

If needed, a command center is set up, an excavator is on permanent standby and the team partners with CalFire to ensure the safety of all crew and local community members.

“Our crews are out there every day and are fully committed to ensuring safe passage,” Ritch said. “It doesn’t matter the weather, time or holiday, we’re always present and ready to respond to make sure our crews and communities are safe.”

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