Setting the tracks on fire? How Metrolinx compares to other northern transit agencies when it comes to lighting switches ablaze to fight winter

In Chicago, transit rail passengers can look out of windows and see flames licking up from the ground as they pass over. We explore what’s behind the fire and ask whether GO Transit and UP Express ever use fire to fight back against the February cold.

It could be an opening for a Hollywood blockbuster – amid darkness and falling snow, a modern commuter train in Chicago passes over tracks that seem to have been set on fire.  

It’s not the end of the world as we know it. Instead, the city’s Metra commuter rail agency, which watches over 11 train routes in and out of downtown Chicago, uses the dramatic video to explain one of the ways they deal with the cold when winter sets in. It’s no surprise the footage finds traction on social media. 

view of the tracks at night in winter, with gas fired flames on to keep switches clear in Chicago
An example of the flames used to keep switches clear during winter in Chicago. (Metra photo)

According to Metra, the tracks themselves are not actually on fire. Instead, the flames come from a gas-fed system that runs adjacent to the rail, generating heat on the critical areas where the switches are supposed to make contact. Metra staff are safely on hand as their trains roll over and say there is no risk to vehicle or passengers. 

“Our hot air blowers are modern and operated using energy management systems (EMS) technology.”

Xavier Hall, Metrolinx senior manager of signals. 

And Metrolinx often gets asked whether rails in and around Toronto are set ablaze. 

Xavier Hall, Metrolinx senior manager of signals, says Metrolinx keeps switches clear of ice and snow using heaters that are natural gas powered to blow hot air onto switches to prevent them from freezing. 

A Metrolinx natural gas powiered hot air blower during winter
An example of a GO Transit hot air blower keeping switches clear during a recent snow fall. (Metrolinx photo)

“Our hot air blowers are modern and operated using energy management systems (EMS) technology,” says Hall.  

With more than 400 of these heaters stretched across the GO Network, Hall says Metrolinx uses these units strategically during the winter months to balance safety and the organization’s carbon footprint.  

view of the tracks during the day in winter, with gas fired flames on to keep switches clear in Chicago  and a train in the background
Winter weather poses a major challenges for all transit agencies – and there’s many ways to keep things moving when Mother Nature throws snow and ice into the mix. (Metra photo)

Flaming Ropes 

One thing Metra and Metrolinx do have in common, is both use flames when making track repairs on ‘pull aparts’, the areas of track that contract due to cold. The tracks aren’t really on fire, but rather crews use rope soaked in kerosene near rails, to expand the metal in order to make the repair.  

In those cases, crews take extra precautions to make sure the repairs are done safely.  

It might seem like something from the silver screen but using heat and fire is a very regular sight as the grips of winter take hold across the north. 

Story by Scott Money, Metrolinx media relations senior advisor