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Thursday, February 28, 2019

LIRRs Insane Absolute Block Signals

Back in May I wrote a post covering the LIRR's new Reduced Aspect system.  Similar to Metro North's, the system uses some additional indications involving slow speeds as well as the color Lunar White to distinguish it from existing color light signals.  I was somewhat puzzled why, after adopting a new color light system to replace the older position light system, the LIRR would create a brand new system from scratch as opposed to just expanding, or using its color light system.  After all,  NORAC has had this down for years with the "Clear to Next Interlocking" modifier or the use of a Cab Speed signal with a Restricting option for failures.

In fact, I had heard that the LIRR had been using the "Flashing Green" aspect to indicate Absolute Block Clear.  It had never seen it, but it made sense.  Not to mention they had Manual Block Clear as an existing option as well.  A quick google search actually found a previously unknown LIRR signal rule reference.

NAME: Absolute-Clear.

INDICATION: Proceed; Track clear to next interlocking signal. Approach next interlocking signal prepared to stop.
Yeah, there you go.  If you want to go to color light, just use *G*/R. A nice uniform difference from NORAC Cab Speed.

Huh?  *G*/*R*?  That's a bit...odd.  I guess they really want to make it different from anything that might appear in the Amtrak zone?  Wait a minute...what's that in the text of Rule 298B?

Absolute Medium Clear?  Absolute Slow Clear? Oh no..

 NAME: Absolute-Medium-clear.

INDICATION: Proceed; Medium Speed within interlocking limits. Track clear to next interlocking signal. Approach next interlocking signal prepared to stop.

Are you kidding me?  This is the sort of think a child would come up with for their imagination railroad.  Oh wait, it gets crazier.

 NAME: Absolute Slow-clear.

INDICATION: Proceed; Slow speed within interlocking limits. Track clear to next interlocking signal. Approach next interlocking signal prepared to stop.

Yup, that is a flashing three headed signal. I mean I guess I see the logic.  The LIRR doesn't use flashing signals outside of the Amtrak zone so this associates flashing with an absolute block while not duplicating any existing signal aspects.

 NAME: Slow-approach

INDICATION: Proceed approaching next signal prepared to stop. Slow speed within interlocking limits

Ok, I guess that brakes the pattern.  Wait, on the PRR Slow Approach can stand in for Slow Clear on high signals.  What does the LIRR do there?

NAME: Flashing Slow-approach.

INDICATION: Train will proceed in accordance with signal indication within interlocking limits and after clearing the interlocking, proceed under absolute clear indication to the next interlocking.

They named a signal indication "Flashing Slow Approach".  I guess the other three signal rules used up all their creativity juice.  The fact that I only became aware of all this now just shows the extent to which the LIRR keeps its operating practices under wraps.  To be fair, this isn't as crazy as it appears.  Like I said, when this was developed in the 1970's the LIRR had avoided flashing signal aspects and also wanted to avoid conflicts with Amtrak zone signals (although there was and is no wayside-free operation in the Amtrak zone).  In the relay hut logic could use a single flashing circuit applied to the entire output of a signal when an Absolute Block signal was called for AND the system avoids the odd case of a "Clear to Next Interlocking" displayed along side an Approach signal, which can happen under NORAC despite being redundant.

This here is how you do absolute block.  End of discussion.

Ultimately it doesn't matter if the system makes sense when viewed at the right angle on a sunny day.  In a recent Newsday article, LIRR operating personnel were complaining that the new reduced aspect signals don't give the engineer enough warning, that train handling and/or the ability to maintain a schedule will suffer.  The Pennsylvania Railroad, the Long Island Rail Road's corporate parent until 1968, SOLVED this issue in the 1940's with the 'C' marker which simply modifies an existing signal aspect. The root of today's limited aspect problem is that in the 1970's, instead of adding one extra marker light and one extra signal rule, the LIRR decided to add 4 signal rules and 13(!) different indications to implement a cab signal system without fixed wayside signals and now trying to change it over to something like the NORAC method with color lights likely would lead to confusion. 😵

Metro-North started fresh in 1983 and first choose the PRR solution.
The rank and file of the LIRR have always prized a complex rulebook that is shrouded in secrecy in order to increase job security and overtime.  40 years later the management is now having to take drastic measures, beyond a simple color light conversion, to bring order to the chaos and unfortunately I suspect that all the old vestiges of the train order and manual block systems are likely to be next.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Pneumatic Points Plan B - Engine Taps

I love pneumatic point machines. They are simple, powerful and they make cool noises. Created in a time when electricity and electric motors were complicated and expensive, the technology has not aged well as the cost of labour has skyrocketed past the cost of technology. Case in point is the old conundrum of what what one does if the air all runs out. While electric point machines have the equivalent disadvantage of not being able to function without electricity, they have been able to make up for this limitation through the widespread adoption of the dual control point machine. Downed power lines got you down? No problem! Just throw that big old lever by hand and watch the switch points move.

You see the rotational gear train of an electric drive is able to mesh with the rotation of a hand throw lever. Pneumatic points on the other hand use a linear piston and crank system. While there are certainly ways to incorporate a hand control, it would probably require a major redesign and add a significant amount of complexity.

So what does one do if your pneumatic interlocking plant literally runs out of gas? Well a little hint can be found on old PRR interlocking sheets. At various points on the diagram there are notes indicating the presence of an "engine tap". Once common, this device seems to have been mostly eliminated at surviving pneumatic interlockings and it took me until 2018 to actually encounter one in the wild at the Brilliant Branch wye switch at CP-HOME.

An engine tap is a valve on the interlocking air line with a standard railroad air brake coupling on the other end. In case air pressure drops below minimum operating levels, perhaps due to a compressor failure or power loss, locomotives were expected to connect their own air supply to the engine tap and pump up the plant's air reservoir using the locomotive's own air system. In fact, while reading an old PRR book I remember a story about how during the Northeast blackout of 1965, the first engine movement authorized in the Philadelphia area was for a pair of diesel road freights to run lite to ZOO interlocking in order to connect to the air system and keep the interlocking plant operational.

Why were these useful devices removed? Well I have to assume that electric power and automatic air compressor became more reliable. There is also the risk of vandalism/sabotage if random people are able to simply vent an interlocking's air system to the atmosphere (recall that engine taps were usually included at manned interlockings with vigilant operators). Without the engine tap railroads reverted to a Plan C, which boiled down to having maintainers remove the cover, hand crank the points to the desired position (if necessary) and then spike and wedge the points until air power could be restored. Evidence of spike and wedge operation was in evidence at the Pensy high point CP-AR where each pneumatic point machine was provided with a brightly painted wooden wedge and matching railroad spikes.

 With pneumatic point machines rapidly vanishing it won't be long until the only place this sort of thing applies is Penn Station New York and Washington Union Terminal, and those places probably already have all sorts of more conventional redundancies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Last Call At Tipton and Fostoria

Some railfan locations need no more description than a single word.  For decades the 3-track PRR signal bridges at Tipton, PA and Fostoria, PA had provided such an exciting backdrop that one is pretty much guarenteed to find a railfan at one of those locations "on duty" from sun up until about midnight because hey, night photos :-)  Anyway the creeping re-signaling effort is getting closer to these iconic locations, so close that the new blue SIP signs have been placed on the relay huts with a bit of the black plastic on top.  Therefore it is probably your last chance to get out and get some photos at these locations before they are rendered completely worthless.  Remember, there won't just be some new modern type of signal, there won't be any at all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Signs! Signs! Everywhere a Sign! - Eastern Passenger Roads

In Part 1 of my look at railroad station signs I covered the East Of Mississippi Class 1 freight railroads, NS, CSX, CP, etc.  Here in Part 2 I am going to be covering the passenger roads in the northeast, Amtrak, SEPTA, NJT, LIRR, Metro North, etc.  Surprisingly, as time has gone on the passenger roads have become significantly less labeled than their freight counterparts.  This could be due to cost cutting, a compact territory that makes getting lost less likely or simply a desire to hide operating practices from the general public. 

Amtrak operates its own trackage as part of the Northeast Corridor, Springfield Line, Harrisburg Line and, for a time, the Atlantic City Line.  Inheriting the infrastructure from bankrupt roads that would be later folded into Conrail, Amtrak would often just leave the old, typically Penn Central, sign in place.

The first thing Amtrak decided to properly brand were its manned interlocking towers where they
adopted a white on blue motif that would last through the present day. 

For remote interlockings constructed during the early NEC Improvement Project era, the Government dollars didn't really cover signs so Amtrak had to settle for stenciling on the relay hut.

The next standard that appeared around 1990 was a totally-not-Conrail white letters on blue background sign which also appeared on the Atlantic City and Springfield lines that were re-signaled at that time.

In the late 1990's Amtrak decided to add a touch of flare with a colorful sign that really showed off the old pointless arrow logo.  These appeared in just a few locations.

Meanwhile, further north Amtrak experimented with a white on black sign.  These are mostly seen on the Boston to New Haven segment and in northern New Jersey.

Which leads us to the present standard which I would call "low observable".  Not sure why Amtrak doesn't want to advertise it's interlocking names, but at least they kept the white on blue.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Railroad Dispatcher Web Game

I wanted to call attention to a new web-based North American style CTC simulation game.  It's still in beta and pretty much limited to a single layout, but it is a long overdue addition to the dispatching simulator market that pretty much consists of the increasingly long in the tooth Train Dispatcher 3 and the UK focused SimSig. You can find and play the game at

As someone who has operated a real US&S style CTC machine, the simulation isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than nothing.  Currently the largest deficiency is the lack of delay between toggling a unit lever and coding the action to the field.  On a direct wire machine the switches will take a second or two to throw and of course over a code line the machine will click and clunk for quite some time before confirmation of the state change is received. 

It will be interesting to see if things like blocking devices are added or if additional styles of panel are supported as various railroads could use their own conventions for indication lamp colors and such.  Anyway, I'd advice everybody to give the game a play through and give the developer, randy Hook, some constructive feedback.

Monday, January 21, 2019

2019 Empire Corridor Trip Report

I have once again completed my annual trek to the heart of New York Central territory via Amtrak's Empire service.  The good news is that between the division post at CP-75 and the start of Rule 562 at the new CP-138 south of Albany, no additional re-signaling has taken place.  The double track project is complete to Schenectady and the new station there ha been completed along with the re-signaling of CP-159 and CP-160 which I reported in 2018.

While non-Darth Vader target signals with 'C' boards are a positive, the whole setup still feels a bit off with blinding LED signals and OSHA approved aluminum masts.  One addition is the brand new CP-149 that provides a mid-point crossover between CP-157 and CP-145.  ACSES transponders are also in place.

I also noticed that the CPO-1 on the old D&H Colonie Sub had been removed which is about time seeing as according to Google Street View that happened sometime around 2016.  For those of you who don't know this was the interlocking in the middle of I-787 in downtown Albany.  It was replaced by a new CPO-2 about a mile to the north.

Even the gantry was cut down.
I visited CP-SK at the east end of Selkirk yard and was able to confirm that it was still in it's late Conrail configuration with no signs of any impending re-signaling.  Some Conrail target masts have been replaced by CSX Darth Vader signals, but a slim majority are still of the classic touch.  A new CP-12 had been constructed immediately to the west of CP-SK since my last visit a good 10 years ago, but in an interesting twist Conrail signal rules appeared to still be in effect throughout with Seaboard rules starting at the west end of the yard complex.

R/R/Y is still Restricting at CP-SK
I might have issues getting back to the Capitol Region in the future, but I'm pretty satisfied with the coverage I was able to get over the last 14 or so years with the multiple re-signaling efforts.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Signal Videos from the 70's, 80's and Beyond

I don't tend to seek out railroad compilation videos, even historic.  They typically consist of about 10-20 cuts of some freight train passing with various "heritage" units on grainy VHS.  Any signal or interlocking content is fleeting and involves sorting through a lot of cruft.  Well after a recent content drop in the later two months of 2018, the Railroad Media Archive has become a major exception to the rule. I first noticed it earlier in the year when it posted 17 minutes of color 8 or 16mm film from a PRR cab ride between Columbus and Cincinnati on a route that is now mostly a rail train.  Signals and interlockings are definitely the focus and one can really see how properly focused PRR Amber Position Lights really pop.  At Cincinatti the person even got some footage in the still active Tower A.

There is also posted two explicit interlocking tower videos that have all sorts of interior video demonstrations of interlocking machines including one off-brand pistol grip machine from the B&O/EL Sterling tower that I had even never seen before.  The operation of the machine even comes with sync sound!  A real feat in the age of film. There are a whole bunch of other towers covered with demonstrations of CTC machines, table interlockers, mechanical lever plants and even the GRS N-X machine at F Tower in Fostoria.

There is another video that exclusively deals with the old NS tower in Lima Ohio, including a demo of the US&S Style S machine there.

Finally this guy seemed to be in the right place at the right time, even up into the 1990's with video of SO interlocking in South Fork PA just before the tower was closed and a ride in a Capitol Limited dome car as is traversed the Conrail raceway into Chicago between HICK tower and ENGLEWOOD with all of the old school PRR and NYC signaling still in place.

Like I said, you won't be disappointed. Check out all this guy's stuff. Be warned, it might make you a little sad to see how much amazing retro technology has been lost since just the 1990's :-(