When it comes to disrupting most rail systems, it takes little more than a broken down train, a human fatality on the tracks, or the occasional derailment to bring trains to a screeching halt. Weather usually doesn’t impact the tons of rolling steel until winter turns severe and offers up extreme freezing temperatures complete with ice on the rails.
Ice has proven to be a troublesome adversary for rail operators and if you’re operating the busiest commuter railroad in America you can’t afford to have ice disrupting your schedule. The Long Island Railroad turns to two of ice’s age old nemesis, heat and fire for the solution to frozen switches.
The rail company literally sets its tracks on fire using a combination of automated and man ignited techniques to “fire” rails up.
Dozens of switch heaters have been installed throughout the 700-mile system, using electricity, natural gas and kerosene to melt the ice. The gas to these heaters is supplied by a one-and-a-half inch pipe with a globe valve down in a pit near the switch. A mechanic from the LIRR’s Buildings and Bridges department turns on the gas and lights it with a fusee. Then the winds blow it out.
The Long Island Railroad also is still using antiquated “switch pots” which are filled with kerosene and ignited by track men and burn a wick under the switch points.
Then there is the switch oil. To thaw out frozen switches, track men use Hexane, hydrocarbon oil that is poured on the rails from a long spouted can by a track man. The oiled switches are ignited by a second track man with a burning broom that was previously saturated with the oil and then and used to light up the oiled switches that burn for fifteen minutes, effectively de-icing themselves.
There are commercial products whose manufacturers claim will de-ice rail switches but I find the Long Island Railway’s method a manly method of cost effective and common sense ingenuity.