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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Thinking About the Price of Safety

I have been a pretty vocal critical about the value of PTC when it comes to general rail safety.  It's the sort of thing that sounds great in practice, but looking at the number of lives lost in PTC preventable rail accidents the costs are seriously hard to justify.  Anyway, in this day of weighing the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to a pandemic against the severe cost of an economic depression, the folks at 538 took a crack at trying to figure out how much the government should spend to save a life.  It provides some additional metrics beyond "lives" or even Quality Adjusted Life Years that get to people's own subjective valuation of risk.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Right Hand Rule - How De-Regulation Ruined US Signaling

Why the US railroads seem to go from having a pathological need to mount their signals to the right hand side of the tracks they governed, like this...

Or this...

Or even this...

To, seemingly overnight, just doing this...

Well in 1939 most locomotives provided the engineer with visibility like this...

So in 1939 the ICC decided to legislate the obvious and required that all railroad signals be situated to the right hand side of the track they governed.  Of course the usual system of waivers and grandfathering applied so that left hand running lines such as the CNW didn't have to rip out its fireman-side signals, but all of that created barriers to cost cutting, even after the 1960's rolled around and all of the main line steam locomotives had been retired. 

By the 1980's, chopped short hoods on the F end had been the norm for the better part of two decades with only a few out-layers like the Southern, still holding on to the practice.  In 1985 the ICC successor, FRA decided that the Right Hand Rule was obsolete and railroads could put signals on whichever side of the track they wanted. 


The effect was immediate with back-to-back masts replacing split masts automatics and end-of-siding signal bump-outs becoming some sort of vestigial organ. Bracket masts, the go-to low cost option for bi-directional automatics on two track main lines were hit particularly hard along with the two track automatic signal bridge.  Multi-track cantilever signals have hung on, but only in areas of restricted visibility like curves.

Now in Europe many of the right (or left) hand replacement requirements are either still in force or at least still practiced by the state owned railways and as such there is much more diversity in the signal mounting systems, typically in the form of signal bridges.  It just goes to show how important the regulatory environment can be for something as esoteric as signal diversity.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

NS Altavista District: A PL Haven...For Now

The NS Altavista district is a low grad coal route between Roanoke and Abiline, VA and I just saw some current photos showing that it has somehow avoided the mass re-signaling efforts that hit the N&W main line via Lynchburg.  I'm not sure how similar it is to the Shenandoah District, which had its classic signaling refreshed (but not replaced) around the year 2000, but from what I can see most of the interlockings are still equipped with N&W style color PL's.

Still, nothing lasts forever and ALTAVISTA interlocking in Altavista, VA has the Darth Vaders up and ready to take over.  Other interlockings seem to be OK, but if you live anywhere nearby, put this whole route on your must see list.  The Altavista district is somewhat isolated and low traffic so it doesn't attract a lot of photography.  It definitely needs some attention from the railfan community seeing the general lack of good signaling options.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Stop vs Proceed - Telling the Difference

Where railroad signals are involved there are two schools of thought.  Should I stay or should I go?  Usually this is pretty clear cut, but where Red signals are involved sometimes one should kind of do both.  Back in the day in North America, there were long stretches of railroad that were literally out of all communication.  A minor failure of some kind could leave a train stranded with no means of proceeding for perhaps hours.  Therefore signals not protecting against a conflicting movement or other crash inducing hazard were defined as being permissive in that trains could pass them at slow speed and proceed until a more favorable signal indication was passed.  Of course with three standards colors (R,Y,G) and signal heads only capable of displaying 2 or 3 aspects, railroads needed to get creative in how they indicated which signals could be passed, and which could not.

The first solution was to use the color and shape of a semaphore blade to define the type of signal and the rules involved.  Absolute signals were painted red with a squared off end while distant signals were given a fishtail end and painted yellow.  When permissive automatics came on the scene the fishtail was inverted into a point with the yellow background and black band remaining.

Of course semaphore signals are only disable during conditions of daylight.  For the nighttime a marker light was applied below the main head.  Also popular on position light signals, marker lights were the common way to define an automatic in the position/semaphore systems. Although there were the occasional exception of using a marker to denote an absolute signal (I'm looking at you N&W), more often the markers were used to make absolute signals that could be switched to act like a permissive signal.

Alright, you have your marker, but what if you also have absolute signals with more than one head.  It's possible to mistake the marker for a lower absolute head in the darkness, even if the marker was smaller.  One solution would be to use a yellow or lunar marker, but back in the day railroads still wanted a distinction between Stop and Proceed and a rolling Restricting.  The solution was to offset the signal heads, using the relative position to convey the permissive meaning.

At this point someone realized that maybe they should just tell the crews that a signal was permissive.  In the United States a number of railroads, typically in the South, adopted the (P) board for "Permissive".

Canadian railroads, on the other hand, have gone with a [R] Board for Restricting.

Of course the easiest/cheapest solution was to simply use the milepost number plate, useful in defining the particular the signal location, to also indicate a permissive status.  Now milepost number plates have been around since the dawn of the automatic signal era with Hall Banjo,  so why the need for markers and offset heads?  Well reflector technology was pretty primitive up until the 1960's, either consisting of white paint with a bit of glass or glass cats eye jewels.  Film plastic reflectors was what gave the railroads assurance that the number plate would be distinguishable at sufficient distance at night (at least when they still cared about such things). 

 Of course one outlier from the whole number plate system is Canada where offset heads or [R] boards are used instead.  In fact, virtually all signals, absolute and permissive, come with a number plate denoting either the milepost or signal (lever) designation.

I'm sure for many of you this was pretty basic information, but these pages tend to come up in Google searches so its nice to have a comprehensive guide to the North American way of distinguishing permissive signals from absolute signals.  The same distinctions also apply overseas, but there most countries have more unified sets of signal rules.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Off Brand Modular Signals

Usually when a railroad has gone all in for modular color light signals they place an order for a GRS D type, a Safetran CLS-20 or whatever the heck US&S is selling, but sometimes your railroad might be looking at a weak 3rd quarter or is funded by the public sector.  In those cases you might want to go with one of the little guys because they are probably willing to sell that $10,000 aluminum box for $7,000.  In this case your major minor players are L&W, Harmon, something I think might be related to Harris Technologies and whatever is ripping off the CLS-20. 

First up, L&W Industries is based in rural Missouri and made some inroads with Union Pacific or its predecessors in the 1980's before being generally rejected for the Safetran.  It's current claim to fame is the LED searchlight still being bought by Amtrak for various terminal projects.  Noticeable by the  L&W logo I have found these in the wild from Virginia to Texas.

If you are looking to save some money by purchasing your signaling equipment from Harmon Industries, located near Kansas City, you will have to look elsewhere because they were purchased by GE in 2000.  However some of their signals can be encountered from time to time, specifically on the Amtrak Shore Line and Atlantic City Line.

If you see a logo that sort of looks like an H with a swoop, I think this may have been something related to Harris Technologies that also got swept up in a GE joint venture in 2001.  These also appeared on Amtrak and other commuter systems in the northeast and Caltrain. 

Finally we have this blatant CLS-20 knockoff that I encountered on the low budget Buckingham Branch that have the same clam-shell look, but no glass lens or even that many LED modules.  I'm not sure, but UP might also be investing in these bargain bin clunkers.

Well those are all the ones I can dig up at this time.  If any of you are aware of others please let me know in the comments!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Trackside Photographer Profiles NY Central Towers

The Trackside Photographer is a great publication and I've have been tapped a few times to provide content there.  Recently I noticed that another contributor appears to be running a feature on New York Central railroad interlocking towers in the Metropolital Region where he got to spend time as a kid with his dad, who was a tower operator. At this point NW tower in North White Plains and OW tower in Ossining have been profiled and I suspect that a few additional towers are in the pipeline.

The posts are comprehensive, discussing operations, history, mechanics, you name it, all bound together with a great personal touch.  Central towers are woefully under-documented compared to PRR and Reading towers for reasons I have yet to figure out and at this point Trackside Photographer is the only publication trying to pick up the slack  In fact the site has a whole interlocking tower category, and while some of the listed posts can be a bit lite on tower content, they are nevertheless worth checking out.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

2020 A-Line Trip Report

So I recently had the opportunity to ride Amtrak's Palmetto for almost its entire run to Savannah which would be my first trip since 2018 between DC and Selma and my first time ever south of Selma.  Unfortunately the placement of the baggage car on the rear of the train prevented me from taking a proper survey, but I was able to observe the few remaining bits of interesting signal kit that do survive and because that set is so limited, I can pretty much list them all here with both new and archive material.

Kicking things off the RF&P vintage US&S N-3 intermediate signals are still in place between Spotsylvania and Doswell.  They may have some Darth Vader head mods for 4-block signaling, however the old school 90's hardware is clinging to life.

Speaking of Doswell, the US&S large target bracket mast is still in service for southbound trains.

In case you were wondering, the RF&P FB, MD, HN and GN towers are also still standing.

The next classic signals, again, slightly modified, can be found at CHARLIE BAKER interlocking in Rocky Mount, NC.

On the South End Sub between Rockey Mount and Fayetteville, there are a number of 90's vintage transitional signals that use the large targets and painted mast structures with modular or Safetran hardware.  However in places the integrated hut-masts are being replaced with more traditional single purpose equipment so these might soon be disappearing.

At the Wilson diamond south of Wilson, NC, I spotted this ACL survivor facing the intersecting NS line.

At FLORANCE interlocking in Florance, SC there are some more 90's vintage, Seaboard style US&S large target signals.

File Photo
Finally in Drayton Hall, SC, the drawbridge over the Ashley River is protected by Stop and Check signals in the traditional manner, even if those signals were changed during the recent re-signaling process.

All in all, its not much, but its something.  If you are in the vicinity of any of these signal locations, make sure you pop by for some photos.