Union Pacific's 'Sierra Snow Fighters' Give Mother Nature a Run For Her Money in California

Union Pacific's Rotary Snowplow | LR

Union Pacific’s Rotary Snowplow – A Giant Snow Blower

When Mike Upton spots a news crew from The Weather Channel in downtown Truckee, California, the senior manager for Union Pacific Railroad knows it’s all-hands-to-the-plow time in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

Upton and his fellow “Sierra Snow Fighters” are responsible for clearing the tracks and keeping the trains running in one of the snowiest stretches of railroad tracks in North America.

The magnitude of their job can be summed up with one mind-boggling metric: 38 feet. That’s the average snowfall at Donner Summit, one of the highest points of their service unit.

“We are a proud, get-it-done railroad team. While everyone else is waiting for the storm to pass or the highways to reopen, our Union Pacific crew is out there clearing the tracks with some of the biggest, baddest machines in the snow-moving business,” said Upton, senior manager – Track Maintenance.

The team can back up its pride with an impressive record. “Service on this mountain hasn’t stopped since 2011,” said Upton.

Donner Pass

Raymond Lewis, a railroad photographer, captured drone footage earlier this year of Union Pacific’s spreader going over the Upper Cascade Bridge on Donner Pass.

This season alone, they have already moved or cleared 310 inches of wet, heavy snow – otherwise known as “Sierra Cement” – including 138 inches that fell in December.

Sierra Snow Fighters - Snow Spreader | LR

Spreaders boast a 16-foot wing on each side.

Upton and his team are one of several snow-fighting teams at Union Pacific who work to keep the nation’s supply chain moving and America’s shelves stocked during extreme snowstorms in states such as Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Minnesota.

The Sierra Snow Fighters are responsible for maintaining 245 track miles from Reno to Roseville that goes from sea level in the Sacramento Valley to the 7,000-foot summit at Norden, California.

There are more than 700 curves on their section of the track, which goes under the Interstate 80 corridor 23 times.

During a typical winter season, which starts in early November and extends through April, The Sierra Snow Fighters will see a “dozen decent storms,” if not more, Upton said.

Union Pacific's rotary snowplow in action

Rotary snowplows – the big gun in Union Pacific’s snow-fighting efforts.

“When Interstates are closing, and trucks are being forced off the road, railroads are able to run thanks to the men and women at Union Pacific who brave the elements and keep our tracks open. Our crews’ commitment and efforts on the ground to keep the lines cleared during extreme weather is a testament to the tenacity of railroaders,” said Jeremy Ritch, general director – Maintenance of Way, Operating.

One of the worst winters in the Sierra Nevada occurred in 2011, when almost 700 inches or 58 feet of snow fell during the winter season, burying the mountain and halting train movement for six days.

“We learned a thing or two in 2011,” Upton said.

For starters, Union Pacific brought on an “avalanche team” that works to mitigate risk and exposure by deliberately triggering safe, controlled avalanches. “Instead of Mother Nature giving us the snow when she wants too, we now get the snow when we want too, in a planned and safe manner.”

Union Pacific also bought highly specialized snow cats favored by ski resorts, including the PistenBully 600w Polar - a powerhouse that can climb and get the Union Pacific crew where it needs to go on remote sections of the mountain.


A Flanger clearing snow between rails.

The snow cats are great, but the team’s first line of snow-fighting defense is a Flanger, a piece of snow-removal equipment that utilizes “flanger blades” to clear the snow and ice between the rails. The flanger, which can resemble a caboose, is pulled by specially equipped locomotives.

The team also has nine snow cats – high-powered snow tanks - that they use to navigate through the snow and access remote areas on the mountain. The cats are used for a variety of snow-removal purposes, including pushing the snow away from the side of the track.

“With the amount of snow we have, if we don’t move the snow away from the tracks, we get “bermed in,” with no place to put the snow that accumulates off the tracks,” said Upton.

Another tool in their snow-fighting tool chest is a “spreader,” a specially designed piece of equipment outfitted with a plow in the middle and 16-foot snow blades or “wings” on each side. Spreaders are used to plow through snow and move it away from the tracks. They are typically used in pairs, with a spreader on the front and on the back of a “train” powered by two locomotives in the middle.

The Spreader with its wings is a majestic sight to behold as it pushes through several feet of snow, creating an enormous cloud of snow.

Surprisingly, when crew members are in the Spreaders, it’s the heat – not the cold – that becomes an issue. It’s hot enough inside the cab of the locomotives to keep the windows and windshield wipers from freezing and/or frosting over and crews are often forced to shed the layers of clothing they wear for the outside.

“The spreaders are designed to work in blizzard conditions all night and all day long and they run hot,” said Upton.

The final line of defense in Union Pacific’s snow-fighting tool bag is the Rotary snowplow – a giant snow blower with a large circular set of blades that can blow the white stuff 100 to 300 feet away from the tracks, depending on the weight of the snow.

Rotary snowplows are only mobilized in the snowiest of winters when the Flangers, the Spreaders and the snow cats have been outgunned by Mother Nature, and the snow is too high and too close to the track. It’s a judgment call but, generally speaking, they aren’t sent up the mountain until the snowbanks are eight to 12 feet high on the sides of the track.

“They are extremely slow-moving machines, and it takes a lot of work hours to get them up and running,” said Jeff Collins, Senior Manager – Operations, in Sparks Nevada.

Prior to 2023, the last time they were used was in the winter of 2018/19 over Donner Pass, Collins said.

Sierra Snow Fighting - Infographic | MR

Union Pacific's Sierra Snow Fighters on The Weather Channel

How does Union Pacific handle a winter with sixty feet of snow? Our Shane Keller touts how UP's "Sierra Snow Fighters" are clearing the tracks this winter with The Weather Channel.

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