With the polar vortex engulfing the north eastern part of the United States, measures are being taken to ensure cities can function. To some it can look crazy, but to many, this is a normal part of life. For instance, Chicago’s rail system has tracks on fire.
…CHICAGO’S RAIL SYSTEM IS ON FIRE?
Metra tracks might be on fire at some point today.
Yes, that's normal. https://t.co/CRgdjwkGVA
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) January 30, 2019
“How was your commute?”
“Oh, there was a fire on the train tracks… on purpose.” https://t.co/xT1YmBvY5C
— 🦖 SUE el tiranosaurio rex 🦖 (@SUEtheTrex) January 30, 2019
Oh yeah, the old "set the train tracks on fire to keep them working" trick.
Literally everyone has seen this totally normal thing. https://t.co/tCNkRrmP0v
— Daniel Rubino (@Daniel_Rubino) January 30, 2019
— Kris Cremers (@CeekBird) January 30, 2019
This is in fact, totally normal. This actually happens any time it gets too cold, but for those unversed in the practice, it can be jarring.
Metra, Chicago’s rail system, explains that ice and snow can clog the switch points a train uses to move in the right direction. Many points along the path will keep these switches from freezing with blasts of hot air, or sometimes with electrical heating.
The tracks on fire in the shared video at interlocking station A-2 are too far away to have hot air blown on them, so instead they have a custom gas-fed system to light fire next to the switch.
So, I guess they aren’t on fire.
Rail operator posted additional info– back in the day it was kerosene (not diesel), but these days they use natural gas or electric induction heathttps://t.co/6zMvVexpBc
— KL (@KLyon77) January 30, 2019
1. This is something they do every winter: https://t.co/m0fXhQccWh
2. I still want to write a Batman story where Firebug helps rescue a train car full of people in the middle of a blizzard. https://t.co/RwMW8r6YeX
— Kevin Church 🖖🏻 (@Kevin_Church) January 30, 2019
I think where I live they still use manual switches. I would see yhe train stop, a person hop off, throw the switch, and continue on. I can see how this could be a problem in the snow…
— pink proletariat (@pinkproletariat) January 30, 2019
— Michael Behr (@mabehr) January 30, 2019
Although they were surprised that I wouldn't warm my car up in 60 degree weather. Hell, I don't even warm it up in 5 degree weather half the time. You just drive a little slower and most likely you sit in traffic at the red light for a bit and that's when your car warms up.
— Lauren "Hindsight is 2020: Vote Democrat" (@alissa914) January 30, 2019
While today the tracks aren’t literally on fire, this hasn’t always been the case. Before this gas system was installed, workers had to take pots of kerosene to the spaces between the switches and light them on fire by hand.
John Meyer, a director of engineering for Metra, said,
“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.”
In that instance, the tracks on fire were dangerous. The fires are still treated with the same level of caution as the kerosene days, despite being much safer.
The interlocking has a worker monitoring the flames every second they’re on. The gas can be controlled to make the fire larger or smaller depending on what is needed. And because the fire can damage the ties, they only use it when necessary.
It is an odd sight that has led to some great comments.
— Tim (@Zenithwar) January 31, 2019
— Yo, da cat (@YcOaDtA) January 30, 2019
MEANWHILE IN CANADA! pic.twitter.com/RNPjyMXSTs
— Shane York (@SuperEMT2) January 31, 2019
— Mubeen (@Mubeeen_) January 30, 2019
Despite the insane image of a railroad on fire, this practice is carefully regarded by Metra. The use of gas and fire has its own issues compared to other methods including the cost of gas, the need to replace damaged ties, and even instances where ice blocks the gas entirely.
Metra is constantly reviewing their system to ensure it’s running well, and if new, sensible technology comes into play, they may switch out the system. In the meantime, this train is not in any danger from these flames.