BILLINGS — As the cold weather starts to settle in Montana, snow and ice can make getting from point A to point B difficult on the roads and rails.
Luckily, BNSF Railway, which moves everything from groceries to medicine to automobiles, has some interesting methods to keep its trains running during the winter.
“Winter weather in Montana happens every year,” says Courtney Wallace, the senior director of external communications at BNSF. “We always learn from past winters and past experiences. We make sure that we have good plans in place and the most important thing, above everything else, is that we're moving goods safely, that our people are safe and our trains are safe.”
Safety is practiced year-round by BNSF, which includes being proactive on maintenance, checking equipment and inspecting bridges and tracks. This is no small feat for the railroad, which operates in almost every corner of the western United States.
But in the wintertime, things kick into high gear, especially in Montana. That’s when the railroad's Winter Action Plan goes into effect. This plan includes having the right people and equipment strategically placed around the country to deal with inclement weather.
But how do workers actually clear the tracks?
Wallace expanded that there are several devices used for snow removal, including a rotary snowplow.
“They're about 150 tons each. And what they're equipped with is this powerful, 11-foot circular fan that can cut through deep and shifty snowdrifts. Our rotary plows play a crucial role in our winner action plan. We also have several thousand switch heaters installed on our network. Think of the switches as electric blankets. They will help melt the snow in a very safe and efficient way,“ she said.
They also have snow sheds or roofs that shield the tracks from snow, essentially creating snow tunnels for trains to pass through. When the roads are blocked, workers gets moved to where they are needed in old passenger rail cars called snow coaches. And BNSF employs a crew of avalanche specialists who work with the state and the national parks to monitor and mitigate avalanches in Montana.
All in all, Mother Nature can be unpredictable, and it takes a dedicated and innovative team of railroaders to keep things moving. That’s just what BNSF has, Wallace says.
“We have some incredible people who are very humble do not like to take compliments, but the work and effort that they do to keep this railroad running safely is always amazing to me," Wallace said. "Our headquarters are in Fort Worth, but most of our folks live in the field. They live in Havre, they live in Glendive, they live in Great Falls and they live in all points in between. So, Montana is home. We have a lot of great people there who really care about the safety of the railroad because this where they live, this is where their families and their loved ones live.”