Working in a Winter Wonderland: Model Railroad Equipment for Snow Scenes

As we’ve previously explored there are a lot of great techniques for creating realistic and enticing snow scenes. However if your railroad is set in a snowy environment, you’ll also need the appropriate equipment to help the railroad deal with the weather. In this article, we’re exploring 5 essential rail vehicles for use on a snow-themed layout!

Ho Scale Wedge Snow Plow

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There’s no vehicle more synonymous with winter railroading than the classic snow plow! First developed to battle heavy snow in the old west, wedge plows are a simple but effective vehicle for clearing tracks of drifts and mounds. With a front-end plow looking much like the front of a boat, the wedge plow is able to effectively push snow to the side as it moves down the track. Wedge plows are usually unpowered, with a locomotive placed behind them to provide power and force for attacking the snow. Many Wedge Plows were purpose built, however some were converted from other uses, such as steam locomotive tenders and boxcars. One of the most common types in current use is the Russell Plow, a type which has operated continuously since the 1920s!

Model Train Rotary Snow Plows

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In the high mountains, where drifts can often be measured in feet rather than inches, a Wedge Plow just isn’t enough to do the job. In these types of scenarios, a railroad will typically employ a rotary snow plow, which can more effectively clear heavy drifts and deep snow. Similar to Wedge Plows, many of these are legacy pieces with decades of service behind them, however newer examples are also beginning to be utilized. Rotary plows operate by cutting through snow drifts with a circular motorized bladed wheel. The snow is then forced out of the assembly via an output chute located above the rotary blades. Due to their complicated construction, rotary plows are notoriously expensive to maintain and operate. For this reason, many railroads have retired them, however they can still be found in use on mountain routes such as the Union Pacific mainline through Donner Pass.

Ho Scale Jordan Spreader

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A spreader resembles a traditional Wedge Plow in many ways, and is also used in much the same way. They are typically unmotorized (for propulsion), and are placed ahead of a locomotive to clear the oncoming track. What spreaders can do which plows cannot however, is neatly shove aside and pack together the snow as it plows through it. This ensures that the snow will not simply collect on the tracks again once the train passes. Both plows and spreaders can be used to clear tracks at a fairly rapid pace, however deeper drifts and heavier snow can require them to move more slowly to ensure that an effective job is done. Like many still-used snow plows, the Jordan Spreader type dates from the 1920s and is still in service today!

Ice Breakers

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In the 1960s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad converted a fleet of 2-bay hopper cars into ice breaker cars. These were designed specifically to clear low hanging icicles from tunnels and bridges, so that they wouldn’t strike fragile loads such as new automobiles in open-top auto carriers. Other railroads followed suit with their own variations, such as the Clinchfield, which utilized a repurposed flatcar, and the Canadian Pacific, which used retired 40ft boxcars. Some western roads such as the Southern Pacific and Milwaukee Road took a slightly different approach, attaching ice-breaking devices the roofs of some of their locomotives. Today, Ice breaker attachments continue to be used by several railroads to prevent damage to rolling stock and loads.

Jet Snow Blowers

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While the sight of a rotary snow plow at work can be truly breathtaking, watching a jet snow blower is surely a close second! For almost as long as jets have powered aircraft, they have also been used to clear railroad tracks of snow and ice. These impressive self-propelled machines utilize the heat and force generated from an actual jet engine (yes, the type you see on planes!) to melt away snow and ice in half the time it would take to use a plow. While more effective, the use of a jet blower isn’t cheap – utilizing an actual jet engine requires actual jet fuel – and both noise and o-zone pollution are of equal concern. For this reason, these are usually relegated to use only when absolutely necessary.

An Ongoing Legacy

While other snow and ice removal techniques are increasingly being used, these aforementioned vehicles still find plenty of use in North America. Many railroads are now turning to multi-modal Hi-Rail snow blowers for less taxing snow-clearing duties, but when it comes to heavy snow and serious drifts, these reliable classics are still brought into action to answer the call!