Fires Are Being Started To Keep Trains Working In The Cold

by : UNILAD on : 31 Jan 2019 13:49
fires railroads fires railroads Metra/ABC News

It is so cold in Chicago right now, railroad tracks are being set on fire to ensure the trains keep moving.

It’s currently -16 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago, which is equivalent to -26 degrees celsius, The Weather Channel reports.

The temperature means snow and ice can clog switch points on railway tracks, which then brings trains to a halt.


Having to come up with a solution, Metra, which operates the commuter railroads in the Chicago metropolitan area, have used fire to fight the issue.

Metra have a gas-fed system installed which heats up switch points so they don’t get blocked.

While it appears the tracks themselves are on fire in a Back To The Future kind of way, the flames are actually adjacent to the rails.


Metra stated at ‘A-2’, Chicago’s busiest interlocking, blocked switch points can seriously disrupt people’s commutes, so they installed the gas-fed system.

Explaining how it works, Metra said:

Some riders may have seen the open flames licking the rails at the A-2 interlocking. Despite popular belief, the tracks themselves are not on fire.

Instead, the flames come from a gas-fed system that runs adjacent to the rail, generating heat on the critical areas where the switches are supposed to make contact.

Without that contact, the switches default to ‘fail-safe’ mode, which means any trains that need to pass through the interlocking will have to wait until the switches make contact with the rail and complete an electric circuit. Until then, train movement is halted.

The heaters help keep the switches clear (although sometimes the snow and ice falls too fast or falls from the underside of a passing train and the switches need to be cleared manually with brooms, shovels or picks).


Alongside the gas-fed heaters, Metra also use calrod tubular heaters, which use electricity, and hot air blowers, which use a combination of gas and electricity.

Before the installation of these heaters, railway maintenance workers filled what were called ‘smudge pots’ up with kerosene, a flammable liquid also known as paraffin.

By hand, they placed these pots in the spaces between the track ties and lit them.


John Meyer, director of engineering for the Milwaukee District, explained it is now too dangerous to use that method saying:

We all used to carry this stuff, I called it skunk oil. We poured it in a two-gallon can, poured it out, and threw a match in it, and it’d start a fire along all the rails. We’re talking in the mid-70s. Nowadays you’d get in big trouble doing that.

While far safer, the heaters can still cause some damage to the ties, with a few being replaced every year due to this.


Metra added ‘it’s important to note that diesel fuel combusts only with pressure and heat, not open flames’ reassuring the fires from the switch heaters are completely safe.

At least one maintenance worker is stationed at each interlocking where a heater is lit to monitor the flames.

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Topics: Science


Metra Rail
  1. Metra Rail

    Fighting with Fire: Switch Heaters at A-2