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Behind the scenes

Snow-clearing at RhB

Who is responsible for winter and snow clearing at Rhaetian Railway? How are the processes organised? An interview with Marco Sutter, second in command for the Albula district

Lorena Campa, trainee in Marketing Communication, 31. 1월 2020

An icy, cold winter with lots of snow – our employees will have to prove themselves once again this season. 

Recent winters have been very intense and strenuous. To ensure normal rail operations, enormous quantities of snow had to be cleared from the entire network. And snow is not always snow because on different sections there can be additional dangers, such as ice, wind, cold, darkness and avalanches.

At Rhaetian Railway, snow-clearing is the responsibility of the Infrastructure Division. As the network covers around 384 kilometres and connects various regions, districts were created to ensure organised clearing of the relevant area. The districts were assigned geographically which means the Albula district, for example, includes the stretch from Reichenau-Tamins to Preda.

A normal working day

Preparations for a normal working day in winter actually start off the day before with a detailed examination of the weather forecasts on a selection of different weather channels (weather app, SLF list). The most important thing is the prediction of how much snow is likely to fall. The employees are assigned for the coming night or day according to the forecast. The Albula district, which is taken care of by the Thusis and Bergün sites, starts work at around 2 am with a tractor in Thusis when there is a lot of snow and at around 4 am in Bergün.

Tractor and hand-held snow blower

The tractor is the first vehicle used to start clearing the stations. The platforms and car parks are cleared, gritted and salted. Once the tractor has done its job, at around 3 am, the hand-held snow blower is used. This is needed for the exposed spots where the wide tractor cannot manoeuvre to clear everything. Other rail service employees then take care of any of the points that have been snowed up. These do have a heating system but still have to be cleared of snow (as otherwise the points could freeze).

The tractor in action on the platform.

Track plough

From 4 am, two employees start pushing and pulling the track plough with a railway tractor. The first employee controls the track plough remotely and the other looks after the railway tractor. Speed is limited here to a maximum of 40 kilometres an hour. The plough is used to clear snow on and next to the tracks. Very high mounds of snow can be created at the side of the tracks during clearing. Once they have finished, they have to clear the mounds of snow using the Xrot mt 95402 snow blower. If the snow is not cleared, there comes a point when the track plough can no longer continue its work. This means that the snow would fall back onto the tracks – which would be unproductive.

The track plough (red) with a railway tractor.

Xrot mt 95402 snow blower

In the Albula district, there is a practised team of four who are expert users of the snow blower and have the necessary knowledge of the rails in the district. The snow cutter is only used if needed and when there has been incredibly heavy snowfall. For this machine too, one employee is responsible for the railway tractor and one for the cutter. 

The snow blower consists of two aggregates with two chimneys, which spray the snow away. The machine travels at a maximum of 20 kilometres an hour, but varies its speed according to the height of the snow and any obstacles it may come across. At the chimneys, the setting for the width of the ejected snow can be programmed. But caution is advised: no roads, houses, cross-country pistes etc. can be covered with snow.

Avalanches

Sometimes, if there is a danger of avalanches, parts of the track have to be closed in winter: this is always discussed with the Avalanche Commission and various advisers. Luckily, this doesn't happen very often. 

The sections are first closed, then the necessary blasting takes place followed by an inspection trip with a railway tractor.

Helicopters are used on the Albula network from Filisur to Preda for avalanche blasting. The helicopters have to have good weather, though, to be able to fly. New avalanche towers are in use on the Bernina Pass and in Val Bever. The advantage of the avalanche towers is that Rhaetian Railway does not have to rely on good weather, but can trigger blasting artificially. 

Thank you!

Clearing snow on the Rhaetian Railway network is a serious, hard and dangerous job. Difficult decisions have to be made within a short period of time – which, if wrong, could have fatal effects on rail traffic.

So here's a big thank you to all districts of the rail service for their daily work because, without them, rail traffic would not be able to function so smoothly!

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