Metra ‘tracks on fire’? Not quite

From ABC to the BBC and with Stephen Colbert in between, the national and international media is obsessed with Metra’s “tracks on fire.”

With the Polar Vortex bringing deep subzero temperatures to Chicago the past few days, the commuter rail agency fired up the gas heaters to keep switches operative and free of ice. The heaters proved to be an eerie and irresistible visual backdrop for news outlets to illustrate how Chicagoans were coping with the deep freeze.

CNN reported: “When it’s this cold, Chicago sets its tracks on fire.”

United Kingdom’s Daily Mail: “Crews light Chicago tracks on FIRE to keep trains moving.”

“Chicago’s so cold they had to deliberately set the train tracks on fire,” joked Colbert on his CBS talk show Wednesday night. 

Not so fast, says Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile, who posted on Facebook: “Ok national and international media, repeat after me: we do not set the tracks on fire in Chicago. You are looking at gas-fired switch heaters. We have guys out there actually making sure the tracks don’t catch fire.”

Reile pointed out that the flames come from a gas-fed system that runs adjacent to the rails, generating heat on the critical areas where the switches are supposed to make contact. Without that contact, the switches default to a failsafe mode, and train movements are halted.

Reile said she heard from more a dozen media outlets from around the world, including Norway’s Dagbladet and the British Broadcasting Corporation.  

“Just crazy,” she noted.

Granted, the array of burners at the sprawling Metra interlocking near its Western Avenue yard (pictured above) is a dazzling sight. The burners are critical to keeping more than 300 trains a day passing through.

And despite the media attention, the heaters aren’t just used in subzero cold. The system is turned on as needed when temperatures are between 40 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and stays on when it’s below 32 degrees.

The Chicago media see the flames every winter and reporters know how the heating system works, but the out-of-town media love to perpetuate the “tracks-on-fire” myth, Reile said. 
Of all those reports, Reile credited Canada’s CBC Radio for reporting “Why Chicago’s commuter train tracks appear to be on fire.” 

“CBC got it right,” she said.

— Richard Wronski

A version of this story also appeared on TRAINS magazine’s News Wire.

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