"OF all the hazards which afflict railways, snow is arguably the worst," says the Oxford Companion to British Railway History. “Unpredictable in arrival, in both date and location, and variable in quantity and particularly form. One cubic foot of snow may weigh between seven and 60 pounds.”

Ahh, the joys of the British weather.

The first snowploughs appeared on British railways in the late 1850s, and from about 1880 until 1909, the North Eastern Railway (NER) built 24 snowploughs, often on the chassis of scrapped steam locomotives.

In Britain, only five old snowploughs exist, and three of them are here in the North- East.

The Northern Echo: PLOUGH ON: The incident in 1888 when a relief engine ended on the roof of an NER snowplough

NER No 12 is the oldest, built in Gateshead in 1891 and now catching the eye at the Locomotion: The National Railway Museum, in Shildon, County Durham.

NER No 20, from 1909, is in an unrestored state in Beamish Museum’s collection.

It spent much of its working life in tandem with the third surviving plough, NER No 18 (snowploughs worked in pairs, one at the front of the engine, the other at the rear to ensure they could always get out of a drift), which is undergoing a £30,000 restoration in Shildon.

It was built in 1909 in York and features in the most famous of all railway films: 1955’s Snowdrift at Bleath Gill. Cameras captured the extraordinary efforts over five days to rescue a goods train stranded in deep drifts on Stainmore summit.

Since No 18 was pensioned off by British Rail in 1975, it has been in private hands and it is now owned by enthusiast Bryan Blundell.

“I wanted a restoration project, but I wanted something that would look totally different,” he says.

It is being worked on by Rail Restorations North-East in Shildon and should be ready to return to the North York Moors Railway in the new year for months of cosmetic work.

“It normally sits in the car park at Pickering, where it is quite a conversation piece because it looks so different, and it is a historical item because of its film connection,” says Bryan.

However, snowploughs are difficult for heritage railways to use. You can’t give people rides in them and they look a bit silly stuck in the middle of a demonstration train in the middle of summer.

“I’m going to sit and polish it,” says Bryan.

While it is being restored, he is collecting information about all 24 NER snowploughs.

These winter powerhouses are rare and exotic treasures, so if you have any details or pictures, please contact Echo Memories and we’ll pass them on.

THE last time Snowdrift at Bleath Gill featured here in January 2005, readers struggled to see it.

Now, though, it is continually viewable on a screen next to NER No 12 at Locomotion, or you can watch it on YouTube – the full link can be found on the Echo Memories blog, along with the full article from 2005.

THE strangest of snowplough pictures was taken on March 15, 1888. The plough appears to have ended up with an engine squatting on top of it.

That day, a huge snowcloud deposited its contents over the North-East. More than 20 trains were stuck and every railwayman was hard at work with shovels.

At 8am, a bellman toured the streets of Darlington summoning up 150 volunteers who took a special train to clear Stainmore. The train, with a full complement aboard, left at 10am.

Then a wire came through of desperate drifts at Consett, and a further 67 volunteers were despatched to Crook to dig their way northwards.

The Northern Echo’s report of the drama says: “The snowplough has been at work, and it is reported that in course of its operations it suddenly came upon a buried engine.”

It was a dangerous job being a snowplough driver.

A snowplough was also sent to free The Flying Scotsman, which had become stranded at Longhurst station, three miles north of Morpeth. The Duke of Argyll was among the passengers although, because he was clearly superior to everyone else on board, he was taken to the stationmaster’s house for the night and then to Longhurst Hall as the guest of James Joicey MP.

The other passengers remained on board, fortified by cups of tea brewed by local colliers’ wives, until the snowplough barged its way to them.

As the plough was returning, though, it was struck by the relief express engine, the engine somehow coming to a rest on the plough’s roof.

One of the men in the snowplough was William Worsdell, the NER’s locomotive superintendent.

He was severely hurt and his unnamed friend, who was along for the ride, sustained injuries from which he never recovered.

This is one of the very few railway accidents in which there was a fatality, but no official investigation.