Make way for the new snow blower
The snow flies through the air in a great arc. The tracks can hardly be seen from the driver's cab, despite its large window. The new snow blower can shift some 8,500 tonnes of snow in an hour: even in the deepest winter, it keeps the line between St. Moritz and Poschiavo clear.
Situated at 2,253 metres above sea level, Ospizio Bernina is the highest railway station in the RhB network. Masses of snow pile up here and along the entire Bernina Line in winter. In particularly harsh conditions, they can form walls measuring up to five or six metres in height. Keeping the railway line open regardless is the responsibility of Stefano Crameri, the man in charge of the Bernina section of track. "It's a nice job. But a huge responsibility. After all, lives could depend on the decision as to whether the line should be left open or closed." But the man from Poschiavo knows 'his' Bernina Line well: he has worked at RhB for 23 years and has been responsible for the Bernina section of line for the last seven. Fortunately, line closures are a rare occurrence these days: "Last winter, we only had to close the line once for a whole day, and otherwise just for a few hours at a time."
From manual labour to hydraulics
The new snow blower has been in service for two years now – and Stefano Crameri is highly satisfied with it: "We – that's two engine drivers and myself – were allowed to have a say, share our experience, when it came to ordering the machine. That was a nice touch by the top RhB management. A lot of our input was taken into account." The new blower is not self-propelled. Instead, it is pushed forward by a helper engine. The Xrot mt 95403 needs its own two engines to power the rotary blower. The blower can clear three metres of snow on either side, cutting a channel six metres wide. "The old steam-powered snowploughs could only clear a channel of 3.6 metres. In those days, manual labour was additionally required to widen the channel – hydraulics were introduced in the mid-1970s, but before that," according to Crameri, "it was backbreaking work." But even with the new technology, taming the banks of snow is no easy matter: more than one trip is required to do the job properly. "On the first trip, the new machine cuts a channel of 3.6 metres. It's only second time round that we are able to extend that to the maximum six metres." The blower is followed by a flanger, which ensures that the spaces between the rails are cleared and that the adhesion works properly. Today, that can all be done using hydraulics, but there is still a need for hands-on action: at least two people are needed aboard the new snow blower – the engine driver and the blower operator.
While the engine driver is in charge of speed and signals, the operator guides the blower's manoeuvres: he determines how wide and high the machine can clear the snow. And that can vary from metre to metre and from right to left. A list of measurements and data records where the track is narrower and where the high platforms are located. "It takes a lot of concentration to keep an eye on the list and the track at the same time," explains Crameri. That's why teamwork is absolutely essential: engine driver and machine operator help one another out – in accordance with the principle of dual control. In ideal circumstances, a third person is involved: "As head of security and foreman, he drives along behind the flanger, closes the track where necessary, helps with shunting and stays in contact with operations HQ." That takes some of the burden off the machine operator, who otherwise performs these tasks.
"Wind is the big problem"
The snow blower is put to work whenever there is fresh snow, or wind. Wind? "Yes, because the snow isn't actually the problem, the wind is," says Stefano Crameri. "The North wind may bring us good weather, but it also blows the snow right onto the tracks. The wind is particularly strong between Bernina Lagalb and Cavaglia – we're constantly having to clear snow there even in bright sunshine." That's when Crameri and his team of 15 engine drivers and eight blower operators have to be on their feet by five am. The first trip with the blower from Pontresina to Alp Grüm takes a minimum of two hours – without delays. "The first train from Poschiavo comes through at 6:30, marking the start of normal operations and we need to make sure that we don't disrupt the timetable." Stefano Crameri and his team keep at it until lunchtime, or sometimes even into the afternoon. All their efforts are directed to ensuring that RhB passengers can get from A to B without a hitch – even in winter.