Motor snow sweepers, Nottingham, 1927


It’s December, and maybe you’re dreaming of a White Christmas. But you probably don’t want that snow and ice of a white Christmas to be settling all over the railway tracks!

Snowy and poor cold weather conditions have been something that trains and railways have had to contend with right from their infancy. Before the railways, heavy snowfall would be dealt with by rolling the snow to compact it into a flat surface for travel by horse, cart and foot. At first, it would be manual clearance with shovels that had to take place to attempt to clear the railway tracks of any snow.

It was in the late part of the 1800s that train companies first started using snow ploughs. Charles Lowbaert patented the Wedge Plough in 1840. These were exactly what they sound like– a wedge fitted to the front of the train to push snow and ice out of the pathway of the moving train. They were sometimes also called ‘bucker plows’. In countries such as Canada and the United States where snow fell heavy and fast during the winter seasons, the snow plough was a very necessary device to keeping the railways moving.

Needless to say here in the UK it was also a problem. In a pamphlet about the North Eastern Railway we hold in our collection, it notes an incident that happened in 1886 where a “severe snowstorm blocked the main line north of Newcastle and rail traffic was brought to a standstill”. Such was the snowstorm, that the aforementioned train only reached its destination some 12 hours later.

After the wedge snowplough came the invention of the rotary snowplough. It’s said to have been invented by a Canadian dentist, a J.W.Elliot in 1869, however he never built a working version. So it was up to another man – Orange Jull – and the Leslie Brothers of Toronto to come up with a working version. The rotary snowplough works by a large circular arrangement of blades on a wheel, which rotate. The blades cut the snow and push it through an output chute – which you can adjust to where you want the snow to be deposited at the side of the tracks. Controls are used to adjust the speed and direction.

The rotary snowplough proved more effective than the wedge in dealing with very heavy snow drifts. However these types of plough were expensive, so a lot of railways chose to use ploughs with a fixed blade, and other methods to keep the snow at bay.

For example, nowadays, snow removal on the railways is even more advanced. National Rail say that they have a number of ways they try to keep the tracks clear including: specialist snow and ice treatment trains (which come with hot air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers, heated anti-freeze jets and compressed air), passenger trains fitted with snow ploughs, their own dedicated snow ploughs, anti-icing fluid and heating strips fitted directly to the tracks and heaters and insulation on the points – to name but a few! Other countries follow a similar process, for instance in Chicago (well known for its very cold winters) the ‘L’ train has “sleet scrapers” which can be deployed to keep the third rail clear of snow, sleet and ice. They also have snowblades (mini ploughs) on the front of the trains, and de-icer systems.

So whilst our ways of dealing with the bad weather feature more high tech elements now, most trains are still using some form of wedge or rotary plough.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


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