Propane, the Railroad Switch’s Wintertime Helper

Switch heaters — often powered by propane — keep the trains moving in a blizzard. (image: railroad.net)

After a heavy snow, as motorists dig out their cars, railroads face a different task: Keeping the switches clear. That was the case on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) — the train that this writer, plus another 300,000 people, ride every morning — after the snowstorm that buried the Northeast last night. “The LIRR had brought extra personnel on hand at [the hub station of] Jamaica to ensure that switches there remain operational,” the railroad said.

Railroad switches are the crucial mechanisms that guide trains between tracks. They are also vulnerable to snow and ice, which can jam up the works. So to keep them open and operating in wintry weather, railroads will use switch heaters powered by electricity or gas — often propane. It can make for a surprising sight, to see a row of flames burning like a vigil beside the tracks. (Check the photo above, a scene from the Erie-Lackawanna Railway. The picture is reminiscent of “Back to the Future.”)

For folks who ride the LIRR: You can get a decent view of the fiery switch heaters by walking to the west end of Track 8 after a fresh snow. They were running during the evening commute yesterday.