Chicago Has Literally Set Its Tracks On Fire During The Extreme Cold To Keep Its Trains Running

YouTube: Metra Commuter Rail; Twitter: @SUEtheTrex

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.


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.

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.

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.

Ben Acosta

Written by Ben Acosta

Ben Acosta is an Arizona-based fiction author and freelance writer. In his free time, he critiques media and acts in local stage productions.