Broken arms and missing sandwiches

Winter calamities on the track

Will it still be winter? Will we get another nice pack of snow or a week of freezing temperatures after which we can enjoy skating on lakes and canals? There is hope. But when you think of that joy, the question also pops up: will we get hassle on the railways? What could go wrong? And what about in the countries around us: freezing temperatures in Germany, avalanches in the Alps?

Train manager Roland Frederiks has been around for a while, first as a train steward on the Alpen Express, now as Train manager on the ICE, Intercity Berlin and Nightjet. He talks about ice chunks, frozen switches and passengers sinking into a pack of snow. And about missing fresh sandwiches from the bakery.

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Calamities on the track

Roland has worked for years on trains to snowy regions. 'I started as a steward on the trains to Austria. In the 1980s, as many as 11 trains left on Friday nights in winter. From The Hague to the snow in Austria. The trains went to Wörgl and then they were split. Some went to Zell am See, other carriages to Bludenz and Innsbruck. Or on to Seefeld in Tyrol.'

Have you ever been stranded on such a train because of snow? 'No, never,' replies Roland, 'the worst that happened was that we had to drive via another route because of huge snowfall. Then, unexpectedly, we didn't drive past Bonn, where the baker was who brought sandwiches on board'.
So missing sandwiches is the only winter calamity you have experienced? 'Yes, except for another time when the train stopped at the platform. The world was white, on both sides of the train. The platform could no longer be seen through the thick blanket of snow. People opened the doors and got off on the wrong side! They sank deep into the snow. Fortunately, no one was injured.'

Thick packs of snow

How do they deal with huge snowfalls or avalanches in Austria? 'Of course, that is a frequent occurrence in those mountain areas, where the snow ploughs are ready in the starting blocks. Before the trains can run again after a heavy snowfall, these ploughs clear the tracks. You can't get through at full speed otherwise. Privately, I experienced it once. The train from Salzburg to Switzerland could not continue because of an avalanche and we had to detour. It always takes a while for a snow plough to clear the route completely.'

What else can go wrong with heavy snow? 'Snow can lump at the bottom of a train. If such a chunk of icy snow is then released in a switch, it cannot move. To prevent this, trains are given an anti-icing treatment before departure. A coating is sprayed on the underside of the train that prevents snow and ice from sticking.
'And snow drifts. Fortunately, it is rare, but drifting snow can also cause problems in engines. That's almost impossible to prevent.'

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Snow, ice and switches

What else can you do to keep switches working? 'To prevent frozen switches, they are heated. This is also how it works in the countries around us. In Austria, of course, you have a lot more snow and there the station master keeps an eye on switches. There aren't fewer switches there, but they are well monitored.'

'Just under half of the switches in the Netherlands are heated electrically, with the rest using gas. Since this year, the switch heating is no longer on all winter, which makes a substantial difference to electricity and gas consumption. The heating is only switched on if the risk of snow and sleet exceeds 10%. In Germany, this is when the temperature is below 3 degrees in humid weather.'


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Crackling fireworks on a wintry morning

'Frost and moisture can cause a layer of ice on the overhead wires. This creates a shower of sparks when the first train runs on a winter morning. It looks beautiful, like fireworks!
'Intercity Berlin used to be the first train to run on the route between Amersfoort and Apeldoorn. That was often exciting. There is then an insulating layer of ice on the overhead contact line, so the pantograph does not make good contact. If there is too little current, the software of modern trains says: stop!'

But what about in Austria and Switzerland? That's where it has to be continuous? 'No,' replies Roland, 'There they have a different voltage on the overhead line. 15000 volts instead of 1500 in the Netherlands. An insulating layer of ice is not such a problem then because you have enough voltage left.'

Worn arms

Are there any other problems with that ice on the overhead lines? 'Yes indeed', the arms wear out faster'.
Arms on the track? 'Yes,' laughs Roland, 'we call the strip of carbon on the pantograph an arm. An overhead line with ice more easily makes grooves in the carbon. If the groove is deep, the catenary can get stuck in it and then you pull down the line. So, you have to avoid that. The train then has to go to the workshop earlier to replace the arm.'

©Prorail, Stefan Verkerk

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Cold trains?

And finally, does it also take effort to get the trains warm in winter? 'No, that's not a problem. At least... it was for a while. Fortunately, by adjusting the software, those problems are over. One locomotive of a parked overnight train used to have only one pantograph up. When it was extremely cold, it demanded so much current that the wire became hot and the software indicated: stop! The pantograph went down and the train stood in the cold for 6 hours. In the evening, you were stuck with a train that was far too cold. Now the locomotive parks with two pantographs. And at least all passengers are warm!'

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Plenty of work to do

Engineering works in Germany... what exactly is happening? And how will it affect my trip? Can I still book?