Written by David Shirres
It’s minus 20, my beard is freezing up, and the drinking water is like liquid ice.
Climbing through the moving snow tractor’s open roof hatch to take photos, the wind chill is grim but the view is well worth it.
I’m in the white wilderness that is northern Russia and, as we approach the Ural Mountains, it’s a clear sunny day.
Russian Railways have brought me to the Arctic Circle to demonstrate snow clearance techniques. On a windless sunny day such as this, the cold isn’t much of a problem, but temperatures can drop to minus 40 and blizzards often reduce visibility to only a few metres.
In such conditions, clearing snow is a real challenge. However, unlike the UK, deep snow on the railway is a regular event and Russian Railways are well practised in clearing it.
They have procedures in place to prepare and manage winter season operations which include setting up special operational centres to stable and support their snow clearing machinery. This specialist equipment usually includes:
- Two track Snowploughs – propelled by locomotives, using the loco’s compressed air supply to power the snowplough equipment. They can clear snow up to 1 metre high at 70 km/h. The width of snow cut can vary between 3.18 and 4.95 metres depending on the configuration of the blades.
- Electric rotary snowploughs – propelled and powered by a diesel locomotive using jumper cables to power the 4 x 350kw motors that drive the snow blowing machinery. These ploughs can clear very deep drifts moving 30,000 cubic metres of snow per hour which is blown up to 50 metres away from the track.
- Knife plane ploughs – with a blade than can be extended up to seven metres to the side and can be used to clear tracks at sidings and stations. Clearing as much snow as possible either side of the track reduces the risk of drifting snow blocking the line.
- Bulldozers – carried on snow clearing trains. When the train is split the bulldozers are unloaded using ramps which hinge down from the flat cars on which they are carried. The bulldozers, T-170 machines powered by 180 hp diesel engines, offer great flexibility for snow clearance as was demonstrated when they were used to pile snow onto the tracks!
Local Engineer, Valdimir Ivanovich, considers that his district has one of the toughest climates in Russia.
His Sosnogorsk region has five of each of these ploughs and about 40 bulldozers.
When it snows this equipment works 24 hours a day. Snow fences, made of zinc plated pipes and placed about 100 metres from the railway, also help – without them snow could drift up to 5 metres deep onto the railway.
The snowploughs date from the Soviet era. Indeed, similar snow clearing equipment, built in the 60s, is on display at Moscow’s excellent Rizhsky railway museum.
Their age, however, does not detract from their effectiveness as demonstrated by Vladimir’s team whose work must be heroic in blizzard conditions.
The demonstration took place on the branch line to Labytnangi in North West Siberia. It also provided an opportunity to learn about some of the difficulties with railway operation in extreme cold.
With tracks covered by snow for 8 months of the year, it is not possible to inspect track fastenings, although this is not felt to be an issue as experience has shown the frozen snow keeps everything in position.
The track is regularly checked for alignment and condition of joints, and there is a monthly inspection by a track recording machine.
The problem of starting locomotive diesel engines in the extreme cold is solved by not starting them at all, or rather by not stopping them outside if the temperature is below minus 8.
The snow machines are maintained at a newly-built £5 million depot at Labytnangi which also provides a base for the snow clearing crews.
The depot foundations are in permafrost and, to avoid settlement from the permafrost melting due to the heat of the depot, the foundations are vented with the vents being kept open in winter and closed in summer.
Labytnangi (population 27,000) is at the end of a branch line, 2,540 km by rail from Moscow, and boasts a new station which was opened in 2004.
Although in North West Siberia, it is only 97 km from the border between Europe and Asia in the Ural Mountains. Interestingly, the station clock at Labytnangi is two hours slow by local time. As with all stations in Russia, clocks and trains run to Moscow time.
Eleven kilometres away is Salekhard (population 43,000), the main town in the area, which is on the other side of the River Ob, the world’s seventh longest river.
Salekhard, a river port which is frozen for most of the year, is not rail-connected as, so far, the river has proved to be too much of a barrier.
During the winter, an ice road over the river connects the two towns. Salekhard, the administrative centre of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region, is actually on the Arctic Circle and its museum contains a perfectly preserved frozen baby mammoth that was discovered nearby.
An abortive project to construct the Transpolar Mainline through Salekhard was started in 1947 as part of Stalin’s plan for a railway across northern Siberia. The 196 km branch line from Chum to Labytnangi was constructed as part of this plan in the early 1950s.
However the railway from Salekhard to Igarka, 1,297 km to the east, was not completed as construction was stopped following Stalin’s death in 1953. Around 100,000 prisoners worked on this railway in appalling conditions and there is a monument in Salekhard to the many that died.
Despite its small population, this area is of huge economic importance to Russia producing, for example, 90% of Russia’s natural gas.
The most significant new field is Bovanenkovo, on the Yamal peninsula, which has reserves of 4.9 trillion cubic metres and is expected to start production in mid-2012.
The strategic importance of the region is increased by the possible opening up of the Northern Sea Route as a result of global warming.
This would save 5,500 km off the existing 20,000 km route from Korea to Rotterdam using the Suez Canal and would increase traffic to rail-connected northern Russian seaports.
Last year, Russia’s Gazprom Company opened its own 572 km line from Labytnangi to the Bovanenkovo field and has plans to build other lines to adjacent gas fields. Although gas is transported by pipeline, liquid products will be distributed by rail.
The new line was also essential for the development the field, initially to carry construction materials, and then to carry materials required for its operation. With Bovanenkovo located at 70 degrees north, this is the most northerly railway in the world and required special construction techniques to take account of the permafrost.
These included building embankments of wet sandy silt which is stable at sub zero temperatures, and, to ensure that it stays frozen in summer, developing a special insulation system of expanded polystyrene and geotextile mats.
A special design was needed for the 3.9 km long bridge over the Yuribey River floodplain which included piles frozen into the permafrost to a depth of 20 to 40 metres.
The area also has many valuable mineral deposits including large reserves of coal, iron ore, manganese, chromite and copper south of the Urals. To exploit these natural resources two new railways are planned from Labytnangi.
The first is a 393 km line from Obskaja, near Labytnangi, to Nadym which includes a 2.4 km bridge across the River Ob at Salekhard.
In December last year, Spanish company OHL’s Czech unit won a 2 billion euro contract to construct this line which follows part of the route of the abandoned Salekhard to Igarka railway and is expected to open in 2015.
The second new route is a 902 km line from Labytnangi going south of the Urals to the rail head at Polunochnoye. However, as expected mineral deposits were not confirmed by recent geological surveys, this is no longer part of the 2010-15 plan.
In addition to these lines from Labytnangi, a 210 km line is to be constructed from Vorkuta to the port of Ust Kara.
On first impressions, the single-line Labytnangi branch would not seem to be particularly important. It only has one passenger train and a small number of freight paths each day.
It is, however, an essential rail link which allows exploitation of the area’s mineral resources and, during the winter, can be the only way of delivering supplies.
The pipeline trains at Labytnangi are an indication of its crucial role in the development of the Bovanenkovo gas field and the line is to be upgraded to remove speed restrictions and increase its capacity.
By 2015, the line is expected to be carrying 2.4 million tons per annum with the construction of 1,500 km of new railways around Salekhard.
The new lines will also generate a requirement for additional snow clearing machinery.
It will be interesting to see how the new equipment will compare with the current Soviet era snow ploughs which will, no doubt, be keeping lines open in Arctic Russia for some time to come.