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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Staying tuned. VSA monitors and shares any updates to the weather forecast with all protocol members.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Constant communication. From the start of the protocol to the end, VSA relays any changing condition information to DriveBC.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cars: make sure you have proper winter tires.
- 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).
- 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.
The Coquihalla Snowshed Protocol. We’re ready. Are you?