Link Switch at Night (by the author)

Last year’s Snowpocalypse introduced a problem that the Seattle area hasn’t had to deal with in a long time – frozen switches.

As temperature decreases, even rail can be affected. While trains themselves aren’t typically blocked by as little snow as we had, the switches that allow trains to change tracks can eventually freeze – keeping trains from switching direction or coming into and out of service at a maintenance facility.

The best way to avoid this is with switch heaters that melt snow and ice, keeping switches operational. They can come in a few different configurations – where there’s space, you can pull up a trailer to blow hot air on a switch, but in the city, or on an elevated trackway like Link, heaters need to be permanently installed. Link was built without switch heaters – they’re normally not required for our climate, but last winter indicates they may be necessary in the future, so Sound Transit intends to install them sooner rather than later.

The first delivery of University Link light rail vehicles is expected to be in October of 2010, and before that, the Operations and Maintenance Facility yard must be expanded to support the new trains. This expansion is planned already in a contract with Railworks (PDF). Our sources tell us that this contract may be amended to add switch heater installation in the key places Link would need it to continue operation during a major snowstorm – in the base, mainly, and at Airport Station. The switch in the stub tunnel north of Westlake is protected from the elements.

Keep in mind that last year’s snowstorm was a 20-year event. This winter is expected to be mild in comparison – and these switch heaters would be installed before October 2010.

57 Replies to “Switch Heaters for Link”

  1. Even though last year’s snow storm was a 20-year event, switch heaters are worth the expense. If another 20-year snow storm hits, Link can stay operational and avoid the transit disaster that was Metro.

    Add them to the SLUT as well…

    1. I can imagine if Link doesn’t have switch heaters it getting stopped more often than every 20 years. Any time there is snow and ice there is a danger of frozen switches. In addition to switch heaters there is also an anti-icing fluid that can be applied to switches before a storm.

    2. This is absolutely right. If many of the same people who blamed the city for last year’s natural disaster had bothered to vote for non-auto mass transit back in the 60s, we would have been able to get around the city and saved millions of dollars in revenue losses.

      Even though we only have one line and it doesn’t really go through the neighborhoods that could really use it yet, it should stand as an example of the winter-weather option REAL cities depend on.

      1. Which neighborhoods could really use it? Rainier Valley seems like it will get some of the highest benefit from Link of any neighborhood.

  2. Let me stress the importance of Link continuing operation during a huge snowstorm and the importance of the City not sanding/salting S McClellan Street: under such conditions, the Link ride from Mt. Baker to Beacon Hill and the elevator ride becomes – with an all-day round trip ticket – the least expensive and most convenient downhill ski area perhaps in the whole world. Sure, resorts in Europe have unique ski lifts, but can any boast an escalator-train-elevator combo?

      1. In a dry winter, during which nightly lows dip into the 20s for several days in a row, that just might work.

    1. I don’t favor taking of my skis and changing lift while skiing. Now if you could ski in Link en ski out, it would be a different story.

  3. Does anyone know when the expansion of the O&M facility will begin? Will they need to expand further when ST2 begins revenue service in the low 2020’s? If so, do they have the room to continue expanding?

    1. O&M storage track expansion is already under contract and will be completed next year, when the ULink fleet begins arriving (27 more Kinkisharyo cars, just like current fleet, bringing total fleet to 62). The yard will then park up to 104 cars, which should be adequate to service the line from Northgate to S. 200th St.

      By the time Link gets longer than that, it will need another facility for car storage and light maintenance (serious vehicle work, truck rebuild, body repair, repainting, wheel-truing, etc., will occur at the Airport Way facility.

      1. Was there any discussion to put another light rail base near the University of Washington or possibly some where on north link. It just seems like north/University link will get a lot more ridership then east link thus a greater need for a base on the north end then on east link. Plus when (or at least I really hope) they build light rail across 520 that need would greatly increase. It would also provide a great layover location for trains terminating at the University.

      2. Patrick,
        Am almost certain no consideration was given to a supplemental Link base near the University of Washington. Just no affordable property of the necessary size south of Northgate.

        No, Airport Way O&M will not, by itself, support full buildout of ST2

      3. What about converting part of one of the parking lots at Husky stadium into a small base?

      4. Patrick, Link will be underground at Husky Stadium. That’s not necessary, either.

      5. Gordon, those plans were not included in ST2. They’ll run initial service without another maintenance facility.

      6. I was just pointing out what ST’s site says. I would imagine that we’ll be voting on ST3 before ST2 is completed (as we did with ST2) … OEM facilities would be part of that (along with more, newer cars).

        Regardless, the optimal placement of an OEM facility is at the end or middle of a line (well that and where there is cheap, available land).

      7. Yeah, I’d expect it’ll end up being near 520 north of the new Bel-Red development, near a station.

  4. If the train runs across the track every 10 to 20 minutes, there won’t be much chance for snow or ice to build up. As the train passes, it will certainly cause friction which would heat up the rail, then in another 10 – 20 minutes, more friction, more heat……just a thought.

    1. Maybe it’s that the switches have moving parts that the trains don’t really run right over.

      1. That’s right, the switches are not directly under the trains. If you look at the photo, it’s the black box to the left of the track.

    2. It’s not the snow/ice on the rails that is the problem — it is the snow/ice that falls between the movable elements of the switch. Try to through the switch and this snow/ice gets compacted and prevents the movable switch element from moving into proper position.

      But there are other solutions. You could develope a switch cleaning vehicle that cleans/de-ices the switch when you run it over it. Or you could do it the old fashioned way — send someone out to the switch with a broom and a shovel. Ya, it’s not high tech, but if it only happens every 20 years, who cares?

      1. How expensive or complex are the switch heaters? Maybe I’m missing something, but I feel like I could make one myself for under $20.

      2. Could you make one for $20 that would survive the elements for twenty or fifty years, though, be remote controlled, attached to the switching system, sensored, and tamper-proof? :)

      3. “send someone out to the switch with a broom and a shovel. Ya, it’s not high tech, but if it only happens every 20 years, who cares?”

        I don’t think it’s as easy as that, as they simply shut off the SLUT when its switches froze. Which was too bad, since the first day of snow it saved me a mile of walking (#2 and 13 were down, and nobody had seen the #1 for over 2 hours).

  5. the switch is the track … the actuator is the black box beside the track. both can freeze. the real problem with the track though is that ice builds up between the points preventing them from opening/closing all the way which can lead to derailments

      1. The bigger problem was ice-clogged flageways. It can lift freight trains off the tracks, so derailing a trolley would be easy.

      2. heaters can fix the switch points … but unless the entire railbed is heated, the shallow flangeway in girder-rail can still cause derailments when cloged with ice (or rocks, ball bearings, etc …)

        I will be interested in how LINK handles it’s first snow on the Rainier Beach street ROW … it managed it’s first rain pretty well but snow is a whole other ballgame.

      3. It isn’t LINK you should worry about on MLK, it is idiots driving into LINK. Even if the track is perfect and safe, you’ve got to remember there is nothing between an idiot driver sliding through a traffic light and into the right of way.

        Just thinking about how probable such a collision would be, my hunch is they’d shut the line down in a 20-year storm no matter how de-iced the switches are. Over a five day period, *somebody* would eventually collide with a train.

      4. Gordon, I’ve never heard of an ice derailment from flanges, and there are street railways all over the world…

    1. They won’t be, because if we have a snowstorm, we’ll run end to end service without using the interim switches. It’ll just be a matter of pushing bad drivers off the tracks.

      1. ML King ROW will be a challenge during a snow storm. Embedded track has only a few inches of clearance between the concrete and critical components on the LRV. Ballasted track has typically has a foot or more. I do not think we will be able to rely on the trains keeping snow from building up between the rails.

        We operated along SODO in training last winter. I recall that yard switches needed some deicing and track crews were out clearing the flange grooves at Holgate and Lander street crossings – likely needed because we were not operating trains regularly during the snow.

        I recall from news accounts Portland MAX managing quite well until about four days in to the cold snap when their switches started freezing up.

      2. Yeah, I haven’t heard of serious flange icing problems. Maybe we’ll have to slow down, or just run trains at night periodically to keep them clear?

  6. SDOT – Take heed to Portland Streetcar, have your supervisors at your critical switches with salt, brooms and a propane heater. Portland Streetcar ran virtually with no issues thanks to this method.

    1. the SLUT only has three of them … one of them goes to the yard and the other two are spring switches … so that shouldn’t be too difficult … but as I said above … the real problem is the girder rail flangeways getting clogged with ice.

  7. Speaking of switch heaters.. this is how it is done in New Jersey.


    Here is the more commonly used one style.

    I surprisingly don’t have any pictures of switch heaters and I was in the land of them (Union Pacific Blue Mountains) all of last week and saw a ton of them. Didn’t think of taking a picture of the critters though.

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