Metra prepares for winter weather with switch covers, heaters

Posted on November 24, 2015

Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza
Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza
Chicago's Metra added some new weapons to its annual battle against cold and snowy weather, installing covers and supercharged heaters to several of the most critical switches in its system and continuing to repair and replace railcar doors that are prone to fail in winter conditions.

These new measures are in addition to the steps taken by Metra last year to help mitigate the impact of winter weather on railroad operations.

“We are always looking for new and better ways to combat the effects of ice, snow and cold,” said Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno. “We believe the steps we took last year and some additional changes this year leave us well-prepared to maintain fast, comfortable and reliable service through the winter months.”

Track worker thawing out a switch. Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza
Track worker thawing out a switch. Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza

Keeping the Switches Clear
Switches allow trains to move between different sets of tracks and are placed at numerous locations across the system. This year, Metra has added 21 switch heaters to three more yards. In addition, it installed covers along the switches at 35 mainline locations on the Rock Island Line, Milwaukee lines and Metra Electric. This follows the successful installation by BNSF Railway of switch covers along the BNSF Line last winter.

In addition, Metra improved the efficiency of switch heaters at 52 locations on the Rock Island Line, Milwaukee lines and Metra Electric by installing nozzles on the heaters that concentrate the heat precisely where it is needed. Thirty-four switches got both covers and nozzles.

Related: Rail agencies adopt FRA's system for reporting close calls

Switch heaters are a good way to prevent falling and drifting snow from accumulating on switches and causing them to fail, according to Metra officials. Covers help even more, both by blocking falling and drifting snow and containing the heat from switch heaters so more ice and snow is melted.

Switch cover focuses the heat on the switching mechanism to prevent ice and snow from building up on it. Photo: Metra
Switch cover focuses the heat on the switching mechanism to prevent ice and snow from building up on it. Photo: Metra

Unfortunately, they cannot completely eliminate a common winter switch problem: snow and ice accumulates on the underside of locomotives and train cars, and then falls off the train, into a switch, as the train rumbles over it. The snow and ice can then prevent the movable part of the switch from making contact with the rail. If that contact can’t be made, an electric circuit cannot be completed and, as a failsafe, the signal system will not permit a train to proceed over the switch.

In those cases, the switch must be cleared manually, which can take time and lead to delays — particularly if it happens at a busy switching location. Metra routinely assigns employees to key switching locations during winter storms to keep the switches clear.

“The investments made in these new switch covers and heaters will enable us to free up and redeploy staff needed to manually clear switches on other parts of our system and, ultimately, help us keep our trains running on time,” Orseno added.

Maintaining Railcars and Yards
In addition to its work on switches, Metra has continued a program that began last winter to address issues with doors on its older cars, ranging from 30 to 60 years old. This includes door defects, worn guides and corrosion. Gaps in the door pockets created during train operations can fill with fine snow and extreme temperatures can turn this snow into ice that jams the doors and leads to delays. Metra so far has replaced the weather stripping on 191 cars, replaced doors on 35 cars and done further heavy maintenance work on the door tracks and door pockets on 13 cars.

All other cars in the fleet have also been through Metra’s annual winterization efforts.

Metra also plans to use three cold-air jet blowers purchased last year that blast cold air to clear snow and ice from rail yards. Keeping yards clear is critical to operations, because any bottlenecks in the yards can lead to delays getting trains in place for service.

Commuters crossing in the middle of a storm. Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza
Commuters crossing in the middle of a storm. Photo: Metra/Mark Llanuza
Other Winter-Related Improvements
Metra has prepared alternative schedules that it may implement when extreme weather conditions or serious service disruptions do not allow for operation of regularly scheduled service. The schedules include about 75% to 80% of the regular schedule, which will give Metra more flexibility to handle the impacts of the severe weather and other disruptions. If Metra decides to implement the alternative schedules, it will provide advanced notice to customers via its website, email alerts, Twitter and the Chicago area news media. The alternative schedules would also be uploaded into the Rail-time Tracker and Schedule Finder tool for the days that they are in effect.

This year, several changes were made in Metra’s GPS Center, which is responsible for sending alerts and making announcements about service issues. In addition to making announcements on train station platforms, the GPS team now makes live announcements directly to affected trains. On busy days, additional staff will be scheduled to enable them to concentrate on and maintain active notifications to customers.

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