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Metra unveils new winterizing tools to protect track switches

Determined to avoid another “Chiberia” fiasco, Metra officials Tuesday unveiled their latest tools in the battle against the ravages of winter.

Some $120,000 in additions to this year’s winter arsenal, for the first time, include two new devices for intensifying heat to switches – a key weak link during a frigid and snowy January 2014.

Some 52 track switches on Metra’s Rock Island, Milwaukee and Electric lines have been outfitted with new hoses that concentrate heat more directly onto switches, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

In addition, 34 of the same switches now have “covers” — rectangular metal boxes that sit alongside tracks and help amplify heat to switches.

Metra is trying out the new heat-boosting devices after BNSF officials reported some success with them last year, Gillis said.

The devices are new tools in the battle to prevent snow and ice from clogging track switches — one of the main reasons that 70 percent of Metra trains were late during the extreme cold and snow that gripped Chicago on Jan. 6 and 7, 2014.

During that time, blowing snow quickly penetrated undercarriages, then tumbled into switches as trains rumbled over tracks and turned to ice, officials said. To keep pace, Metra workers had to clear many switches by hand, Gillis said.

The new devices can’t stop snow and ice from falling from trains and into switches, Gillis said. But they should help heaters work more efficiently and melt snow more quickly.

“It’s an improvement; it’s not a cure-all,” Gillis said.

In addition, 21 switch heaters were added along the Rock Island, Milwaukee and Electric lines owned and operated by Metra.

“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,’’ Metra CEO Don Orseno said in a news release.

Other winterizing work this year included replacing weather stripping on 191 train cars, replacing doors on 35 cars and performing heavy maintenance on door tracks and door pockets of 13 cars, Metra officials said.

Metra on Tuesday also reminded riders that extreme weather can trigger the use of alternative schedules that include only 75 percent to 80 percent of regular schedules. Riders should watch Metra’s website, Twitter account and email alerts for advance notice of the alternative schedules.

In addition, this year the Metra GPS center will be able to make live announcements about service alerts directly on train cars, rather than just at platforms, officials said.

Metra’s new Ventra app also allows riders to more easily check updated information about train schedules on the Transit Tracker portion of the app.