Does Metra Really Set The Tracks On Fire?

Shannon Blum
February 01, 2019 - 1:46 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- If you are a Metra rider, it is possible that you may have seen open flames coming off the tracks after a snowstorm or during bitter cold. But are the tracks really on fire?

Snow and ice cause problems to railroad switches, which can cause trains to be delayed or halted until the block is cleared. To fight that, Metra uses fire. But contrary to what people believe,the actual tracks are not set on fire.

The flames come from a gas-fed system that runs next to the rail, generating heat to where the switches make contact with the train. According to Metra, without that contact, trains are halted.

The heaters help keep switches clear and trains moving.

But it wasn't always this easy for Metra.

Before the installation of gas-fed heaters, Metra would have workers fill what were called “smudge pots" with kerosene, stick them in the spaces between the track ties and light them manually. 

Thankfully technology has come a long way and workers are no longer facing those dangers. 

"The fires at A-2, though far safer than the days of smudge pots, still cause some damage to the ties. Typically, a few ties must be replaced every year due to heat damage, but ultimately there is far more control over the flames, making them not only safe but effective," Metra said in a press release. "Maintainers light the heaters by hand and can moderate the flow of gas, which makes the flames larger or smaller, depending on need."

Metra added that: "It’s important to note that diesel fuel combusts only with pressure and heat, not open flames. Therefore, operating our locomotives and railcars over the switch heaters is completely safe."

As for future advancements for switch heaters, Metra asks themselves: Will the flames eventually be replaced by hot air blowers? Will some new technology be developed to better clear the ice dropped by railcars and locomotives?

"The answers remain unclear, nut one thing is certain. Metra will continue to pit fire against ice to keep trains rolling."