STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

When it's this cold, Chicago sets its train tracks on fire

Chicago residents are a hearty bunch. They know how to keep things moving when the weather turns cold.But what about when it's this cold? Lik...

Posted: Jan 30, 2019 2:21 PM

Chicago residents are a hearty bunch. They know how to keep things moving when the weather turns cold.

But what about when it's this cold? Like wind-chill-of-50-below-zero cold? Getting around is lot tougher. When that happens, the folks who keep the commuter trains running in the Windy City employ a hot idea: They set the train tracks on fire.

Flames were seen sprouting from the tracks of Chicago's Metra commuter rail system on Tuesday.

Metra isn't literally setting the tracks ablaze, spokesman Michael Gillis told CNN. The flames actually come from gas-fed heaters that run alongside the rails and keep them warm. Metra also uses a tubular heating system and hot air blowers to heat up cold track.

"Anytime it's below freezing were using these," said Gillis, who said other rail systems in North America use similar systems.

Why? Tracks are affected by extreme cold in two ways.

In some cases the tracks experience what's called "pull-aparts." This kind of rail defect occurs when two rails separate at their connection. The extreme cold shrinks the metal and the rails literally pull apart from each other, Metra said in a recent Instagram post. Heating the tracks with fire expands the metal until the two rails can be put back together again.

Railroad switch points can also become clogged with ice and snow in subzero conditions, so the heating system is used to unclog them. Maintenance crews light the heaters by hand and can control the flow of the gas, Metra said. The crew members, working 12-hour shifts, remain in the area when the heating systems are being used so they can monitor the flames.

A few railroad ties are sometimes damaged by the heat, but this method is a lot safer than the one the rail system used to employ to thaw frozen tracks. Crews previously used pots filled with kerosene, stuck them in spaces between the track ties and lit them by hand.

"We all used to carry this stuff. I called it skunk oil," John Meyer, Metra's director of engineering, said on the rail system's website. "We poured it in a 2-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."

Metra says it's safe to run the trains over the flames because the diesel fuel in the trains "combusts only with pressure and heat, not open flames."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 22022

Reported Deaths: 375
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah505698
Washington320227
Marion300573
Umatilla234231
Clackamas159547
Malheur83914
Deschutes61710
Lane6063
Jackson4992
Yamhill47413
Lincoln4219
Union3952
Jefferson3794
Morrow3783
Polk33012
Linn30311
Hood River2050
Klamath2042
Wasco1953
Benton1786
Douglas1591
Josephine1282
Columbia1020
Coos910
Clatsop890
Crook501
Baker420
Tillamook340
Lake320
Wallowa201
Curry170
Sherman160
Harney110
Gilliam40
Grant40
Unassigned00
Wheeler00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 591376

Reported Deaths: 10753
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2142835112
Riverside43376824
Orange41823745
San Bernardino38290555
San Diego33157602
Kern25179183
Fresno17978191
Alameda14112209
San Joaquin13870235
Santa Clara12962207
Sacramento12274179
Tulare11643205
Stanislaus10855177
Contra Costa10103149
Imperial9919252
Ventura874093
San Francisco783467
Santa Barbara707473
San Mateo6535122
Merced610274
Monterey562839
Marin547181
Kings506762
Solano433841
Sonoma382551
Madera259040
Placer237724
San Luis Obispo230017
Yolo189845
Santa Cruz13166
Butte12808
Napa114211
Sutter10197
El Dorado7852
San Benito7674
Lassen6830
Yuba6784
Mendocino47810
Shasta46910
Glenn4363
Colusa3975
Nevada3571
Tehama3041
Humboldt2934
Lake2532
Amador19510
Calaveras1611
Mono1601
Tuolumne1592
Inyo1135
Siskiyou1060
Del Norte1040
Mariposa632
Plumas370
Trinity60
Modoc50
Sierra50
Alpine20
Unassigned00
Medford
Clear
61° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 61°
Brookings
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 52°
Crater Lake
Clear
47° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 47°
Grants Pass
Clear
57° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 57°
Klamath Falls
Clear
47° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 47°
Sunny and warmer Thursday
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events