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Fire on the Rail

by Bill Hakkarinen


The trip east from Kansas City had been uneventful. We left on time, and as we clipped along at track speed through the rolling, snow-covered farmland, I thought about my engineer friend's comment yesterday at lunch: "I can have no. 4 under the shed in Chicago at 3:09 p.m." While he wasn't engineer on no. 4 today, it seemed as if that had been no idle boast. Perhaps I would be able to make a connection with no. 30, after all.

Amtrak will not guarantee connections in Chicago of less than one hour. Therefore, I had booked space to my home in Baltimore on the Cardinal - roomette 4, car 5000; departing at 7:30 PM. In nice weather, I'd use the layover time for rail photography; but on this cold, snowy day in early March, dinner and a dome seemed more appealing. If we continued our current pace, and if there was open space, I'd once more enjoy a ride on the Capitol Limited and be home in early afternoon.

The snow was heavier east of Joliet, yet we maintained time. Traffic on the parallel expressway was at a standstill. After the sharp turn north and a crossing of the Chicago River, we paused briefly on the wye before slowly rocking backwards toward Union Station. Suddenly, the passenger next to me at the window sat bolt upright. "The tracks are on fire!" he exclaimed. Everyone rushed to the east side of the Superliner coach. "It's the switch heaters," I explained to the novice passenger. "They keep the switches from freezing in this weather".

My calm, rational explanation belied the excitement I felt, since I'd never actually seen a switch heater in operation before. All thoughts of connecting with no. 30 left me as I realized this was a chance to get photographs of a new (to me) railroading event. After detraining, I quickly placed my bag in Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge, headed out the west doors onto Clinton Street and set off through the cold, slush and blowing snow to my favorite vantagepoint at Taylor Street.

To my dismay, the overpass was closed and fenced in. Access, if you ignored the "No Trespassing" signs, would involve a dangerous climb onto the bridge railing. "Rule S" came to mind: "When in doubt, take the safe course." My railfanning rules have always included being legal and safe. I set off again through the snow to Roosevelt Road.

As I walked up the north sidewalk, a salt truck roared past, scattering salt to mix with the snow and slush. The roar of the truck combined with the wind in a steady howl. I thought I could also hear a roar from the flickering switch heaters, but it may have been the HEP generators on the Metra/BN "dinkys" lined up below me. The flames of the heaters formed a ladder of fire as they angled across the full width of the approach tracks. I was reminded of the twin tracks of flame left behind by the DeLorean "time machine" in the film "Back to the Future."

Now there was the additional roar of Amtrak limiteds threading their way through the flames alongside the dinkys, which often left two at a time. The snow was blowing in hard off Lake Michigan, and I couldn't tell if the fog I saw was on my camera lens, its viewfinder, my glasses or all three. I wiped the lens repeatedly in an effort to keep it clear of the flakes, but droplets of water continued to form rapidly.

The fog settled in more intensely, and the lights of the Loop were only a glow in the mist. In the excitement of watching the parade of trains pass through the fire, I no longer felt the cold. On they came: long strings of Superliners headed west, Heritage Fleet for the east, Horizon Fleet on short runs, plus baggage cars and commuter trains. Emerging from the darkness of the train shed and passing through the flames, it was as if they were leaving the depths of Hell and baptizing their passengers by fire before carrying them safely through the snow and cold to their destinations.

One lone switchman braved the cold and blowing snow, manually lining some of the empty locals through the switches to the station. As the snow eased, he approached the line of heaters. One after another, they flamed up brightly and then were extinguished. Darkness fell simultaneously on the tracks and around me as the westbound Southwest Chief departed, almost 30 minutes late. It was time to return to the station.

I hurried back, eager for the warmth of the Metropolitan Lounge and a welcome cup of hot coffee. Later that evening, I watched the snow resume with fresh intensity as we passed through Indiana. From my darkened roomette, the snow-covered landscape carried the all the wonders of the night train -- but not the excitement of my first encounter with "fire on the rail!"

(William Hakkarinen, M.D., is a member of the Baltimore Chapter of the NRHS (20th Century, too!) and a regular contributor to its newsletter, Interchange, where this story first appeared. He also volunteers as an engineer and conductor at the B&O Railroad Museum.)

Copyright 1998 - William Hakkarinen, RailroadInfo.com

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