Still lighting fires on railroad tracks to keep the switches working

Here is a brief look at using fire on the Long Island Railroad to keep the switches operational in the cold temperatures:

When the cold hits, isn’t the trains that have trouble. It’s the switches that direct the cars between tracks that freeze, and when a switch fails, it can compromise an entire line. To keep the switches functioning, the Long Island Railroad uses the centuries-old method of burning kerosene or natural gas to keep everything running.

The Long Island Railroad, the busiest commuter rail line in the United States, has dozens of switch heaters throughout its 700-mile system. Most use electric heating elements, other older ones burn natural gas, and the even older “switch pots” burn kerosene. Trackmen work through the nastiest of storms, lighting the heaters and dousing switches with Hexane, which is then ignited to melt the ice.

Yes, there are more civilized methods, like hot air blowers that clear debris, but in an era of self-driving cars and other modern marvels, simply using  fire to melt ice has a quaint retro feel to it.

While the picture is cool, I don’t know if “quaint retro” is the way to describe this. It is the 21st century, right? I’ve seen several stories about the use of fire this winter – including in the Chicago area with the maligned Metra tracks – but no one has mentioned how this is done in other countries. What about Siberia? Are there any technologies that could solve this issue?

Roads still susceptible to potholes

A Google News search for the last week brings up hundreds of news stories about potholes. It is a familiar cycle: water gets on the roads, freezing temperatures cause the water to expand, potholes emerge on lots of roads. See diagrams and video about pothole formation here.

Is there any way to build roads that don’t have these problems? Here is one answer:

Which holds up better — concrete or asphalt? “Asphalt can sometimes be a more porous material than concrete depending on the depth of the asphalt surface. As a result, it can be more prone to a freeze-thaw cycle,” Shuftan said.

However, DuPage County Transportation Committee Chairman Don Puchalski said it’s all about maintenance. “The condition of the pavement keeps moisture from penetrating the riding surface,” Puchalski said.

Can’t we build pothole-proof roads? Engineering professor Imad Al-Qadi thinks we can do better. “Through better engineering of the materials and pavement systems, roads can withstand extreme temperatures and cycles of freezing and thawing,” Al-Qadi wrote in an email.

For asphalt, using proper binder and aggregate materials that aren’t susceptible to moisture, freezing or thawing can minimize damage.

For concrete, using the right chemical mixtures can control freezing and thawing. Proper spacing and using more steel in the concrete slabs can also control warping, Al-Qadi said.

This makes it sound like the best pothole solution might be more monitoring and money when roads are originally built. Who is going for pay for that? Surrey, England has gone with “pothole-proof” roads that have a 10 year guarantee:

But in an attempt to find a more permanent solution, the council has begun a five-year, £100 million plan to re-lay the county’s worst roads with new materials which carry a decade-long “no pothole” guarantee…

At the moment the council says it is carrying out a pothole repair every five minutes but the new roads, which have more flexible watertight surfaces, should overcome the problem…

About 300 miles of road will be repaired and the 10-year warranty means any potholes would be repaired by contractors Aggregate Industries and Marshalls.

So there might still be potholes but at least the road-builder will take care of it.

If the roads always have this problem, you could instead with a car that stands up better to potholes:

Honda cars are the most resilient to pothole damage, saving drivers hundreds of pounds in repairs each year, according to research by

The road maintenance campaign website analysed about 150,000 policies issued by Warranty Direct over three years to reveal the cars most and least susceptible to damage caused by the nation’s biggest bugbear – potholes…

After Honda, the most “pothole-proof” manufacturers are Toyota and Hyundai, with less than two per cent of their cars suffering axle and suspension damage attributable to potholes and other road defects.

Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover models are the most likely to suffer, with more than 10 per cent suffering damage each year.

Or you can just pay for some pothole-resistant tires.

All together, this is an annoying reminder that maintaining roads can be quite difficult. If they all have problems, it is very difficult to fix them quickly.

The “science of shoveling”

Reading an article like this about the “science of shoveling” makes me glad that someone out there is seriously concerned about the best way to shovel:

The science of shoveling was invented by the Progressive Era efficiency expert (and father of Taylorism) Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor observed laborers shoveling varying weights and concluded that the shovel load with which “a first class man would do his biggest day’s work” was about 21 pounds. That’s remarkably close to the current recommendation from Canada’s Center for Occupational Health and Safety (keep per-shovel snow loads below 24 pounds). At the Bethlehem Steel works in Pennsylvania, Taylor gave out shovels specifically designed to hold 21 pounds—small ones for shoveling iron ore, big ones for shoveling ash—and made “thousands of stop-watch observations” to calculate the most efficient shoveling method.

Taylor’s purpose was not to preserve workers’ health but to maximize output; by following his recommendations, Bethlehem was able to increase the daily weight shoveled by each laborer from 16 to 59 tons. But because physical endurance was a necessary component to maximizing output, Taylor’s shoveling method also reduced wear and tear on the human body…

The other change is that, even taking into account that Taylor’s subjects were all experienced manual laborers, people must have had much stronger backs back then.Today, ergonomists worry less about manual laborers’ arms than about their backs, because the lower back (specifically the lumbosacral junction) is now understood to be the weakest link in the “body segment chain.” The same goes for anyone in the general population who shovels snow. Various technological innovations have been attempted to protect the back and reduce muscle strain generally, thereby lowering the risk of heart failure. A shovel with a longer shaft makes the initial part of the job easier, but it makes the part where you actually lift the snow harder. Many stores sell a snow shovel with a bent shaft, which is widely recognized as the optimal ergonomic design. This type of shovel has the opposite problem. It makes the initial part of the job harder (you have to stoop, especially if you’re tall or fat), but makes the part where you actually lift the snow easier.

It makes sense that Taylor is behind some of these ideas, particularly since shoveling was tied to manufacturing. I have seen these ergonomic shovels and may just have to purchase one after reading this in order to protect “the weakest link in the body segment chain.” So why aren’t there more strenuous advertisements for the health benefits of these ergonomic shovels?

In my shoveling yesterday, my technique was generally to use a smaller shovel (actually the biggest one we have but still relatively smaller) and lift and throw snow more frequently. I imagine the throwing motions I was using are not optimal – however, they were necessary in order to clear the four foot snow drifts that were already there. It sounds like I would be better off with a slightly bigger shovel so that I don’t have to lift as often.

And a couple of links in this story are interesting:

-Harvard provides some guidelines about shoveling. Basically, you shoveling may be problematic if you are out of shape or don’t exercise often, shovel first thing in the morning, and are exposed to extreme cold. (This is part of a full page about health for older men. Are older men the primary shovelers or are they are the ones most at risk?)

-One might wonder about the relative risk of shoveling: is this more dangerous than other activities? On the whole, heart attacks while shoveling represent a small proportion of the total heart-related deaths in the US each year: “The absolute risk of death-while-shoveling is low. An often-quoted statistic holds that 1,200 American die from a heart attack or other cardiac event during or after a blizzard every year, and that snow-shoveling is frequently to blame. This figure is sometimes attributed to the Centers for Disease Control, although an agency spokeswoman could not verify its source. Even if this statistic were correct, it’s nothing in comparison to the total number of annual heart-related deaths. According to the American Heart Association, there are 425,425 deaths per year from coronary heart disease.” That comes out to 0.3%.

h/t Instapundit

Thoughts on plowing intersections, runs on bread, having places to turn around on major roads (like LSD), and more

Now that the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 has stopped (though arctic wind chills are next), I have a few thoughts about the storm:

1. I drove home yesterday at about 4:45 PM. The roads weren’t too bad and the traffic was light – I assume this meant many people went home earlier. But there a problem in this sort of weather and any snow that always pops up: intersections that are difficult to move through. The roads can be quite passable but then everything bottles up at slushy intersections where people can’t start quickly and have great difficulty in turning. Someone needs to figure out a way to solve this problem. Would it be better to close an intersection for a minute or two so plows could do diagonal runs through the intersection square to clear snow? Are there people concerned about the science of plowing?

2. Why there was a run on bread in times like this is an interesting question to ponder. There are a lot of food one could buy before a storm hits that would be better in bread in that it would last longer and be more fulfilling. When did runs on bread begin and why do people still do this?

3. One of the stories in Chicago was the people who got stuck on in northbound traffic on Lake Shore Drive for hours. Why doesn’t every main road, particularly highways, have a certain number of points where people could turn around if a situation like this (or even a major crash in regular conditions) occurs? Lake Shore Drive has a number of exits in this area but those were blocked with crashes as well. Concrete barriers are helpful in separating traffic but this is an issue that someone should solve.

4. The warnings the police and state officials were giving overnight and this morning were intriguing that they must have to give these warnings because there are people who go out driving in such conditions when they don’t have to. This morning, one official suggested that if people wanted to go out, they needed to consider whether they were willing to risk their lives. This seems like common sense – but perhaps it is not.

5. When I woke up at 7:30 AM, the street in our residential subdivision wasn’t bad – perhaps 5-6 inches of snow. By 12:30 PM, a plow had done several runs on the street and it was clear. I was tempted to go drive and see what everything looks like but see point #4 above.

6. The blizzard is over – the total snowfall was the third biggest storm in Chicago history. Now it is time for the bitter cold. In the grand scheme of things, is the extreme cold more dangerous to more people than the blizzard conditions and the snow?