Slow, Snow, Block, Block, Go!
We resume the story of the 1978 snow blockage at 00.01 on Monday 30 January. (Part 1 was in the last issue.) The lines are blocked by derailed and snowdrift-bound trains north of Carrbridge and south of Altnabreac. All passengers and crew have now been rescued, most by helicopter. The Haymarket and Aberdeen snowploughs are operating from Blair Atholl and Inverness respectively. The Inverness plough is derailed north of Carrbridge. The signal box there has no heat or light. More snow and severe frost are forecast.
"07.44 Dingwall. Loco and van with S&T Inspector, power saw, p'way staff and Area Manager, Dingwall depart to clear the line south of Helmsdale of poles and wires." Arrived Helmsdale 10.15 and entered Forsinard section 10.25.
"14.33 Buchanan House issued telex [remember them?] outlining passenger service for North line today and Tuesday."
"15.45 Wick. AME [Area Maintenance Engineer] contacted on return of helicopter flight to site of derailment and he says LD and van ex Helmsdale sighted apparently stuck in snow drift near Kinbrace."
"16.05 Georgemas. Message received from Forsinard stating loco 26023 stuck in snow drift near MP 117 and derailed leading pair of wheels. Inverness tool van ordered."
"17.07 Inverness. Tool van departed for Helmsdale. Aberdeen plough ordered for 05.00 to Forsinard followed by 07.00 p'way train." Van entered Forsinard section 19.45.
"22.55 Helmsdale. Chief Inspector reports loco rerailed at 21.15 and worked in to Helmsdale with van." Tool van dep Helmsdale 23.10 with 26023 and van.
News came through that Monday that three bodies had been found in cars under 20ft of snow on the A9 on the Ord of Caithness section.
At 6am on Tuesday morning (31 January) both Lairg and Dalwhinnie reported that it was snowing and blowing hard. The Inverness plough was rerailed at Carrbridge at lunchtime, the ECS train was dug out, but one coach derailed. On the FNL, the Aberdeen plough became stuck one mile south of the Altnabreac derailment and the locos returned to Forsinard for a wire rope to pull it clear, which was achieved by 9pm with the locos and men returning to Brora for the night. The good news of the day was that a commercial traveller had been found alive in his car on the Ord, having been buried for three days. He was a draper and had a stock of ladies tights which kept him warm!
Early morning on Wednesday 1st February saw the Carrbridge to Tomatin section cleared and reopened and some services resumed despite a shortage of locomotives fitted with ploughs. Snow walls in cuttings gave only minimum clearances.
Helicopters uplifted Army personnel from Fort George to the Caithness blockage. They cleared debris and levelled 200 yards of track. The Aberdeen plough became stuck in the same drift as yesterday with 800 yards of heavy drifts still to be cleared to reach the damaged track. Only 4 rail lengths cleared today. Work stopped at darkness due to drifting snow. Aberdeen plough released by 9pm.
The plough got stuck again on Thursday and it was not until Friday afternoon 3rd February that it finally got to the damaged track to the rear of the derailed coaches.
"08.00 [Friday] Inverness. Crane dep. with Dundee and Aberdeen toolvans."
"12.58 Helmsdale. AME reports that, owing to difficulty in breaking through snow drift, rerailing will not take place until Sunday 5th February. Inverness crane will remain at Helmsdale but Aberdeen and Dundee toolvans returning home."
"18.45 Helmsdale. Plough and crane combined and depart for Inverness. Engineer's material train to site of damaged track."
On Friday and Saturday the Haymarket plough had to come out again to keep the Perth line over Druimuachdar clear. On the FNL all the track up to the rear of the derailed coach was relaid by 17.30.
"05.24 [Sunday] Inverness. P'way workers train to Forsinard departed."
"06.56 Inverness. Combined plough and crane depart to Forsinard."
"17.00 Georgemas. Reports two coaches rerailed."
"20.40 Helmsdale. PWI reports 26031 has been dug out and 26037 and 26039 started. Immediately coaches are rerailed will try to push 2 locos and coach back to Forsinard."
"04.00 [Monday 6th February] Forsinard. Loco and four coaches arrived ex section and forward to Helmsdale. One coach still to be rerailed."
At 05.00, the plough went into the Georgemas section, the two locos and coach followed it out at 06.15. It went in again to clear the line to derailed loco 26031 and the toolvan was then able to go in and by 12.20, 26031 had reached Forsinard. The plough went in finally to clear right through to Georgemas and by 17.05 the line was confirmed fit for passenger trains. After a blockage of nine days the 17.15 Inverness to Wick ran again travelling at walking pace through the trouble spots. The emergency was over after many days of hard work, long hours and courage shown by the many railwaymen involved.
[The control log and a taped interview with Syd Atkinson are held by the National Railway Museum Library in York].