by Stephen Host/photos by the author
Nothing is more relentless than Mother Nature in winter. Southern Ontario is a peninsula surrounded by three Great Lakes, which provide an ample supply of moisture that regularly dumps on the region as snow. Appropriately called the “snowbelt,” the windswept fields of Huron County are the battleground for snow clearing on the railway. Armed with radios, Tim Hortons coffee, and an 83-year-old wedge plow, the folks at Goderich-Exeter Railway know how to clear the line.
Fetching its winter weather implement off the shop track, GEXR Plow Extra 2303 West has performed radio and horn checks on plow 55413, confirming proper function of communication and warning devices. With the plow’s air gauge reading 90 psi, the crew can now test the wings and flanger. After a few thuds and hisses of pneumatic air, the crew has confirmed proper operation in the predeparture check — once you’re out on the high iron you may not get a second chance.
In front of the former Grand Trunk station in Stratford, the Canadian flag flies stiffly in the minus 15-degree wind chill as five men gather beside the 1938-built wedge plow for a job briefing. Warm coffees in hand, the road foreman goes over the expectations for the job as well as safety procedures, and after reading and exchanging four copies of Occupancy Control System clearances and daily operating bulletins, they’re ready to go.
With the train covered in ice after a 40-mile run, crews are digging out the east leg of the wye in Guelph to turn the plow westward on the Guelph Subdivision to Stratford on January 25, 2014.
The foremen and signals supervisor are up front in the plow to operate the horn, flanger, and wings, while a conductor and engineer keep the train at speed from GEXR GP39-2 2303 at the rear. It’s late afternoon and the crew will plow into the sunset toward Goderich; for half the journey it will be total darkness, especially in the famous “Wards Cut,” known to swallow trains whole. That night, the boys would make it to Goderich with no issues, but that was only due to lessons learned the year before, when the winter of 2014’s relentless pace taught the GEXR hard lessons out on the Huron County snowscape.
In late January 2014, after a rough start to winter, GEXR was in a precarious situation. At the time, normally rostering 10 units for 181 miles of track, three units were out of service. One was a high-horsepower SD45-T2, GEXR 9392 (nee SP) with a turbo failure, along with GP38-2s GEXR 3821 and LLPX 2210. Plowing demand had been heavy through most of January, but Mother Nature was angry and the plow was needed almost constantly.
In previous years when winter’s worst came out, GEXR would break out its second plow, running two at a time, but Canadian National 55408 was scrapped just a few months earlier. On January 25, 2014, a plow ran from Stratford to London and Guelph on the Guelph Subdivision, clearing the main line for passenger trains and freight.
Near Kellys, 55413 is blasting along the Guelph Subdivision at track speed on January 9, 2014.
The next morning, as the plow was sent toward Huron County in Goderich, the train derailed in a pesky drift at mile 6.7 just west of Sebringville; it was rerailed and resumed plowing the next day to Goderich. The same day, Train 431 from Toronto hit a truck, damaging SD40-2 3393’s handrails and taking it out of service, leaving GEXR with only one operating SD40-2 for the Toronto road freight and only six working units total.
Meanwhile, the Guelph Sub main line was not getting any attention and snow had drifted back in; on January 27, VIA Rail called it quits and rerouted its trains southward due to snow conditions. Once the plow returned from Goderich, it turned and burned with a night extra plowing to London, Guelph, and back to Stratford to keep the main line fluid for the next day’s VIA trains…