Chicago commuter railroad Metra is using a system that runs along rail tracks to generate flames and heat to prevent rail and switch defects from the extreme cold that could halt train service.
"Pull-aparts are rail defects in which two rails separate at their connection," the railroad recently said in an Instagram post. "They occur in extreme cold when the metal shrinks and the rails literally pull apart from each other."
Once the metal is warmed up and expands, crews can then reconnect the separated rails, according to Metra.
While it may appear to passengers on a train and in photos that the rails are on fire, Metra says that's not actually the case.
"Despite popular belief, the tracks themselves are not on fire," the agency said in a news release. "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 uses the system to help keep switches clear and from defaulting to “fail-safe” mode, which Metra explains is when switches fail to make contact with the rail and complete an electric circuit. That halts all train traffic through the area.
"Winter weather will always be a challenge for the railroad, and though no railroad is free of switch issues, innovations like the switch heaters at A-2 help alleviate some of those obstacles," the railroad explains.
The practice isn't just used during extreme arctic weather events, but anytime the temperature dips near zero.