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.