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Winter in July?

1 December marks the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere – at least for meteorologists. But for Deutsche Bahn and DB Cargo, winter begins long before the first icy day.

Ice in July usually comes in a glass. When you’ve got an ice-cold drink in your hand and flip-flops on your feet, winter is usually far from your mind. At Deutsche Bahn, however, a team of forestry workers, geologists, engineers and experienced rail employees are already hard at work on plans for the colder months. 

Mr Winter

Leading the way is Markus Schubert. As a track maintenance specialist at Deutsche Bahn, he is responsible for everything needed to keep the train service reliable – for freight and passengers alike. After all, everyone uses the same nationwide rail network, which has grown to some 33,500 kilometres and is one of Europe’s busiest. That’s why keeping traffic running on this tightly synchronised network with up to 40,000 train journeys a day – even in extreme weather such as ice and snow – is such a demanding task. It’s also why employees need to be trained, on-call schedules prepared, contracts signed with external service providers, and all equipment checked from top to bottom starting about six months in advance. 

“We start in the summer by servicing vehicles and technical equipment,” Schubert says. “Before the first snowfall, we also prune any trees and branches along the railway network that would likely fall onto overhead lines and tracks under the weight of snow.” The engineer is quick to stress that all work complies with the strict provisions of environmental and conservation requirements. Trees at risk of falling down in the clearance zone (six metres from the centre of the track) are identified by experts in March and then systematically removed. For this task alone, Deutsche Bahn’s more than 1,000 forestry experts and workers manage vegetation, in some cases using heavy equipment, such as a 12-tonne walking excavator. 

€ 40 mio. is earmarked at Deutsche Bahn for winter maintenance on the rail network

Track availability

Point heating is another example of something that impacts on all participants in the rail network. Around 70,000 sets of points throughout Germany keep trains moving through the network on their correct routes. Some 49,000 of them are equipped with a heater, and these need to be checked before winter. “The heaters are electric for the most part and they prevent the moving parts of points from freezing and becoming immobile,” Schubert explains. “During a hard freeze or in snowdrifts, our nearly 18,000 snow removal and safety crew members clear tracks and points – sometimes by hand.” Point motors on more than 12,000 sets of points at especially critical locations in the network are fitted with covers. Nevertheless, “special vehicles, including rotary snow ploughs, need to be deployed when snowfall is particularly heavy,” Schubert says. “Rotary snow ploughs are attached to the front of diesel locomotives and carve their way through the snow. We have 70 snow removal vehicles of different sizes at strategic places in the network. Some can even plough through up to three metres of snow,” says Schubert, with a hint of pride. Also impressive are the self-driving, high-performance class 716 rotary snow ploughs. They work at speeds of up to 80 kilometres an hour, moving up to 16,000 tonnes of snow out of the way. 

Thankfully, numbers like these are mostly theoretical, as heavy snow removal equipment is usually used preventively when there is a lot of snow on the ground or heavy snow is forecast. The aim is to prevent routes becoming impassable in the first place. “Despite everything we do to prepare, it is impossible to be equipped for all weather conditions, even at Deutsche Bahn,” Schubert says. Studies by climate researchers show that extreme weather conditions will continue to increase over the next few years. In order to prepare for this, Deutsche Bahn has set up its own expert team, which also includes Markus Schubert. This is also where experienced DB crews come into play. They monitor and assess local weather conditions as winter’s effects vary greatly by location. 

The right place at the right time

Regional weather variations are precisely one of the challenges for Schubert and his colleagues at the Frankfurt head office. The right removal equipment must be in the right place at the right time – while causing little to no impact on traffic. Seven locations in Germany – Berlin, Duisburg, Frankfurt am Main, Hanover, Karlsruhe, Leipzig and Munich – share this responsibility and coordinate the deployment of removal equipment in the regions. “We’re always happy when our preparations pay off and our equipment is able to meet the challenge. We plan far in advance and are already preparing for the coming winters,” says Schubert.