Iced-up switches a pain in the caboose, Metra says

The process of manually extracting ice from railway switches moves at a glacial pace, Metra officials said Thursday following a demonstration to explain train delays and cancellations to riders.

Armed with snowblowers, shovels and brooms, a crew of six took about 12 minutes to clean the snow and ice encrusted on a switch at the agency’s Western Avenue yard in Chicago.

“They have to go in and get every piece of snow and ice from the mechanism,” Metra spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile said.

This week, Metra faced the wrath of frustrated riders who endured myriad cancellations and delays Monday and Tuesday with below-zero temperatures. Administrators put much of the blame on switches jamming with ice and snow that need to be fixed manually.

Metra has about 3,000 switches on its lines, and there are thousands more on tracks owned by the BNSF and Union Pacific railways.

But with weather above the freezing mark Wednesday, riders still suffered through similar problems, although of less magnitude. Thursday morning was a painful commute on the BNSF Line as well, with most trains running late, some up to 45 minutes.

Trouble on the BNSF Thursday was exacerbated by a water leak in the railway’s area of operations at Union Station, officials said.

“The BNSF not only has the highest amount of (commuter rail) traffic, they have the heaviest freight going through,” Thomas-Reile said.

And although the worst is over — for now — “we still expect to have problems,” Thomas-Reille said, explaining that train cars accumulate chunks of ice that drop into switches, causing a domino effect.

“If one drops into a switch, it jams it up ... then start extrapolating that over the entire system where it can take 15 to 20 minutes to clean one switch,” she said.

Metra uses gas-powered heaters to melt ice on switches, but they can only do so much in extreme weather, senior director of engineering Larry Powell said.

Although the agency needed to rely heavily on manpower during the deep freeze this week, Metra’s been limited by federal regulations that restrict the amount of time employees can work, Thomas-Reile said.

As of Thursday afternoon, train delays were minimal on the system.

Photo by Ron Wojkovich, courtesy of MetraMetra crews get rid of ice and snow on a signal Thursday.
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