The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol: 10 Steps to Highway Safety


BC Highway 5 from Hope to Merritt (also known as the Coquihalla or “the Coq”) is a busy transportation corridor through a high mountain pass, and because of this high elevation, the Coquihalla can experience periods of heavy snowfall. Don’t let that worry you though – VSA Highway Maintenance, our maintenance contractor for the route, has a plan. It’s called “the Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol” and it’s every bit as important as it sounds. What exactly is the protocol and what does it mean to you? Read on friends.

What is it?
The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol is the go to plan when the snow hits the fan. It comes into effect when more than 15-20 cm of snowfall over a 12 hour period (or freezing rain conditions) are predicted for the Snowshed corridor and its sole purpose is to make sure we can maintain safe and uninterrupted travel through the corridor during heavy snowfall or other challenging weather event.

How does it work?
Many, many people play a part in the protocol both on and off the road. Here’s how the protocol unfolds in ten steps to help you understand how we are working hard to help you travel the Coq safely in snow events.

  1. The call. VSA tracks the weather with special forecasts for the Coquihalla. When more than 15-20 cm of snowfall over a 12 hour period (or freezing rain conditions) are predicted at the summit, they increase communication with the weather forecaster to gather all the information they can about the upcoming storm.
  1. Sound the alert bell! VSA quickly notifies us, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement (CVSE), our Weather and Avalanche folks, as well as flagging and traffic services, tow trucks, and the BC RCMP in Fraser Valley and Merritt, that the protocol is a go. They share their information and secure their services for the upcoming event.
  1. The triple check. VSA makes sure their fleet is fuelled and ready to go. They also prepare a call out list for extra staff in case more hands are required on deck.
  1. Staying tuned. VSA monitors and shares any updates to the weather forecast with all protocol members.
  1. Get your engines ready: Two hours before the storm: CVSE, flagging, and traffic services are on standby.
    Tow trucks will be stationed at the Zopkios brake check. RCMP will ensure that all passenger vehicles are equipped with proper winter tires at Sowaqua chain up area and enforce chain up at Box Canyon and/or Portia. Traffic control personnel will direct trucks into the chain up at Box Canyon entrance.
  1. And go! As the snow begins to fall, VSA will dispatch numerous pieces of snow removal equipment including: plow trucks, tow plow, graders, loaders and snow blowers throughout the corridor dependent on the level of storm forecasted.
  1. Staying on track. As the storm progresses and snow accumulates, there may be a request for the Merritt crew to assist the Coldwater crew. Merritt crews await that call. All equipment is responding to current road conditions or stationed/on standby as the storm progresses. Operators on standby are working in local yards making brine or preparing winter abrasive and salt stockpiles.
  1. Commercial drivers: Chain up.
    The chain up sign (located at Box Canyon) is turned on by VSA. This sign tells commercial drivers of vehicles over 27000 kg licensed GVW that they must chain up before proceeding. Once the chain up sign is on the CVSE will position themselves to ensure commercial drivers obey the sign and enforce if necessary. As soon as conditions permit, VSA will then turn the chain up sign off and relay this information to all responding parties.
  2. Constant communication. From the start of the protocol to the end, VSA relays any changing condition information to DriveBC.
  3. Safety is the bottom line. If the avalanche hazard and traffic volumes are high, a staging site will be set up at the Sowaqua pullout below Box Canyon. Vehicles will be held there, outside of any avalanche areas, and released as queues on the hill clear.   If there is a vehicle incident or a commercial truck that loses traction, the tow trucks on standby and staff working on the hill ensure a quick response to clear the incident.

Now that you know a bit more about the steps we take to make sure the Coquihalla is safe for travel, we would like to remind you that you play an important part in the Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol too.

  1. Know before you go and check DriveBC. If heavy snowfall is in the forecast or occurring on the Coquihalla and you cannot postpone your trip, be aware that there are other routes available. BC Highway 1 and 3 follow lower elevation routes, often have less snow, and may be a preferred route.
  2. Cars: make sure you have proper winter tires.
  3. Commercial vehicles: make sure you have chains, know how to put them on, and chain up if the lights are on. When you are climbing the hill with chains, please remain single file in the cleared lane(s).
  4. If you do travel over the Coquihalla during the winter – SLOW DOWN and allow extra travel time. Speed limits are set for ideal driving conditions and winter driving conditions are NOT ideal.

Drive to Conditions
We take the safety of the travelling public very seriously. In fact, it’s our number one priority on every highway across the province and the Coquihalla is no exception.

The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol. We’re ready. Are you?

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5 Responses to The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol: 10 Steps to Highway Safety

  1. Nick Thomas on January 12, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    So what do the RCMP say to someone who has low profile, sporty, M+S all season tires with just over the legal 3.5 mm tread on them?

    ‘Your tires are legal and safe according to the Ministry of Transportation?’

    ‘Your tires are legal but you would be an idiot to drive the Coquihalla on them in these conditions?’

    ‘Your tires are legal according to the Ministry of Transportation but if you continue we are going to ticket you anyway because we think they aren’t suitable?’

    • tranbceditor on January 13, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Hi Nick,

      While the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is responsible for creating the legislation listed in the BC MVA, enforcement of that legislation is at the discretion of the BC RCMP. You might be interested in reading this blog interviewing BC RCMP Staff Sgt. Pat McTiernan for more information.

  2. Nick Thomas on January 13, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    It might save drivers who plan to drive the Coquihalla (and other mountain highways) in winter a visit to the ditch (or worse) if the Ministry of Transportation actually came out and said that all season M+S tires with 3.5 mm tread are NOT SUITABLE for driving in winter storms.

  3. Teresa on February 10, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    How much salt has been used for the past two nights on the Coquihalla? February 9th and 10th, 2017 when thousands of motorists were left stranded?

    • tranbceditor on February 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm

      Hello Teresa,

      Thank you for connecting with us here to share your concern. Last Wednesday, the Coquihalla highway received upwards of 70-80cm of snowfall, and VSA (our maintenance contractor for BC Highway 5) was fully deployed and managed to keep the roads in good winter driving conditions. Unfortunately, the storm was immediately followed by freezing rain on compact snow and rapidly dropping temperatures causing very icy road conditions and spun out trucks and vehicles. Spun out trucks prevented VSA’s crews from being able to access, cycle and maintain the highway and the decision was made to close the highway until it could be brought back up to a safe travelling standard. We do not take highway closures lightly, but the safety of the travelling public is our number one concern. Here’s a link to an article by the CBC discussing the recent closures which you might find interesting:

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