Parts of the Chicago railway look prefer they've been collection on fire. However don't issue — it's top top purpose.

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Heating mechanism is choose a 'giant gas fireplace' that defend switches indigenous ice and also snow, states transit agency

Chicago's Metra commuter rail agency uses open up flames to keep the trains cost-free of ice and snow. (Metra )

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As a polar vortex-induced deep freeze envelops the U.S. Midwest and also parts that Canada, Chicago's transit mechanism is fighting the cold with fire.

Photos and videos of open flames licking the city's commuter train tracks might look apocalyptic, however don't worry — it's not arson and it's no by accident. 

It's in reality a an approach used to keep the trains running and the tracks approximately snuff during periods of excessive cold. And also despite just how it might seem, the tracks themselves aren't actually on fire. 

Here's exactly how it works.

Why fire?

Cold weather and also railway monitor don't obtain along. Snow and also ice have the right to clog the switches that regulate which rails trains run on, bringing transit come a grind halt.

So, Chicago offers a gas-fed system adjacent to the rail to generate heat in ~ its A-2 interlocking, where switches make contact. 

"Think the it as a giant gas fireplace or gas grill. Basically they're heaters," Metra Rail spokesperson Meg Reile said As It wake up host Carol Off. "It's absolutely an important to our operations."

Metra likewise uses fire to fix what are called "pull aparts" — when extreme cold reasons the stole tracks to contract, precise shrinking the metal and also pulling the rails apart.

When that happens, Metra warms the steel with flames by drawing a rope wet in kerosene follow me the base of the rails until they expand and reconnect.


Is it safe?

Metra said operating locomotives and railcars end the switch heaters is "completely safe," because diesel fuel combusts just with pressure and heat, not open flames.

And at any time the heaters room lit, at the very least one employee member is always on hand to monitor the flames.

Is this because of the polar vortex?

No. Metra actually does this every time the temperature drops below freezing.

"They're really intended to save frost and also condensation from building up on those switches," Reile said. "It simply looks more dramatic and also everybody pays more attention when it's this cold."

Isn't fire type of old-fashioned?

Yes. In fact, the gas-powered heaters are just lit at A-2, Chicago's busiest interlocking, because the thickness of the rails provides it hard to rental more modern technology. 

"At other places we have electric-powered hot air blowers and electric-powered heater elements," Reile said. 

But those are prefabricated systems that Metra purchase from third parties, while the gas-fed system was designed specifically for A-2. 

Crude together it might seem, Reile claims it's in reality a large "technological improvement" over how lock did things in the '70s.

"Railroads throughout the nation used to simply light kerosene, pots the kerosene, and have castle sitting the end there near the convert points to save them warm," she said.

"So i couldn't imagine what to run over those would look like."

So the trains are running smoothly, then?

Alas, no. Of Metra's 11 rail lines, 10 are run top top diesel power and also one is electric.

"That electric line, we've had actually to suspend service since the convulsion of the currently is so great, it's creating breakages and other problems," Reile said. 

"And our best concern right currently is stranding people in a rail car out ~ above a line v no heat and no strength to propel it in these conditions."


Do Canadian cities perform this?

Jonathan Abecassis, spokesperson for CN Rail, claims using fire to fix so-called pull-aparts is a safe and also standard practice in the industry and also CN does it from time come time as needed. 

When it pertains to heating the switches, though, it shows up Canadian rail and transit companies have actually other top up their sleeves.

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Metrolinx trains, which run in Ontario, use hot air blowers ~ above the switches to avoid freezing and also high-pressure snow-blower trucks to eliminate snow indigenous tracks. 

In Toronto, the streetcar switches have actually heaters powerful enough to address most winter weather, said Toronto Transit the supervisory board spokesperson Stuart Green. 

"We carry out pro-active and reactive liquid de-icing and have handheld blow torches in extreme situations where we need to spot-clear switches of snow and also ice," that said. 

Calgary's CTrain tracks also have heaters, and also sometimes the city supplies sand for added traction, Calgary Transit spokesman Stephen Tauro said.