Weather is always working against the railroads. From summer heat to spring rains, the railroads' track gangs have to be prepared to handle anything Mother Nature can throw at them. No battle against the elements is more dramatic than fighting the winter snows.
From wedge plows large and small to rotary blowers and even jet engines, railroads employ a variety of interesting machines to push back the powder.
Walthers' latest release captures one of the most common designs, a wedge plow. Cars of this design have been on the rails since the 1800s and many of these cars are still in service more than 60 years after their construction.
Walthers released a similar model 20 years ago in kit form. But this new release shares little in common with that earlier model. With many upgrades, this plow has risen to today's standards for quality scale rolling stock. The plow was released in four road names just in time for this winter's snows; Chicago & Northwestern, Conrail, Milwaukee Road, and Pan Am. Suggested retail price is $69.98. Additional roads have been previously released and although sold out at Walthers may be available at a hobby shop or train show near you.
The Difference is in the Details
When I first saw the new release, and its price tag, I was more than skeptical. $70 for a model that was $15 in 1994 is a substantial leap.
This is not the same model kit glued together however. You have to see this model to appreciate the quality in its craftsmanship. The catalog and magazine ads just don't do it justice.
Improvements over the original model include:
- Factory assembled
- Separate metal wire grab irons, railings and stirrups
- Fitted window "glass"
- Metal wheels
- Knuckle couplers
- Improved under frame detail
- Road-specific details including roof walk and headlight (non-working)
- Operating side wings (manual)
- Crisp paint and graphics
There is an overall improvement in detail and deco which greatly improves these plows over the originals. Despite the sticker shock, the model stands well next to any of the finer freight cars produced today.
The Russell Plow Company was formed in 1899, but its roots date back even further. Unlike home-built plows converted from gondolas, flatcars, even steam locomotive tenders by railroads, the Russell plow was designed as a snow fighting tool from the beginning.
The plow needed to be pushed from behind by a locomotive (sometimes two or three!) A heavy wood beam called the "Power Bar" ran below the floor of the plow from the rear coupler to the blade. This transferred the full force of the locomotive through the plow and kept the wood car and its crew safe as it rammed into snow drifts.
As snows got deep, the plow was used as a ram. Speed was actually an advantage in hitting the heavy drifts and throwing the snow clear of the track. A crew in the cupola kept an eye on the track ahead and could raise or lower the flanger - a curved blade which gouges a groove inside the rails for the wheel flanges - to clear switch points, crossings or other obstructions.
Of course the location of all of these details had to be known even under feet of snow.
Wings on the sides of the plow could be deployed to carve a wider path. These were also pneumatically controlled from inside.
Wood plows began to give way to steel in the 1930s. Plows came in different sizes but must were generally of the same form. The biggest differences were between single and double track plows. A single track plow, like the Walthers model, throws snow to both sides. On a double track plow, the wedge throws snow to one side only - very useful to avoid burying a neighboring track.
The Russell Plow Company ended operations in 1951 but more than 60 years later its products still answer the call when the snows mount.
On Your Layout
If you model a winter snow scene, then you'll have plenty of excuse to run a "plow extra" whenever you'd like.
The rest of the year, the plows were usually seen spotted in the yard, often near the engine service area.
In preparation for winter, it was common for the railroad to run a test train to make sure everything was in working order before it was really needed. Plows were also moved from one location to another at times. When in transit they would normally be carried at the end of the train, just ahead of the caboose. When the real call comes, the plow will take priority over any other train on the railroad. Of course whether you model the snow or not, there's nothing wrong with clearing an imaginary snow when the mood strikes.
The plows could be powered by any locomotive. In the steam era, freight locomotives were generally preferred over passenger power, but whatever was available could be used in a pinch. A caboose or passenger car was often coupled behind the locomotive to accommodate additional workers. If the plow got stuck in a drift, it was up to manpower to get it free again.
And of course the plow only worked in one direction, so at the end of the line the plow or the entire train would need to be turned on a wye or turntable. Alternatively, two plows were used - facing opposite directions - with the locomotives in the middle.
One point to note on the Walthers model, there is very limited clearance for the trucks to pivot thanks to the sides of the plow and stirrup steps. I tested the plow on 18" radius curve without any problem however.
While I'm sure this plow will spend a lot of time sitting in the yard, I'm sure it will make an occasional work run as well. Even as a yard queen, these plows have a great look and an interesting story to tell.
Even with all of Walthers' improvements, there are still a few things I'd like to add. A working headlight would be a must during a plow run. And although the received plenty of care, these plows usually show a fair amount of weathering - as much from fading in the summer sun as scrapes and scratches from the winter battles.
An airbrush fade and some rust spots and streaks will give this model just the right look.
One detail that is missing is the front coupler. Most plows had a removable coupler which could be attached to the plow end to help in switching the plow in yards or when moving it over the road to another location. The coupler would be taken off for plowing.
Although there is always some way to customize a model, it shouldn't take anything away from this one as it comes. Walthers has produced an outstanding replica of an interesting piece of living railroad history. And I can't help but notice that the plow blade is cast in two pieces - maybe there will be a double track version in the future? We can hope! A double track plow is notably absent from the HO market.
Take a closer look at Walthers' plow. It won't leave you out in the cold.