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Monday, February 20, 2017

Amtrak Empire Corridor Status Report

Just came back from my annual trip on Amtrak's Empire corridor and I wanted to give everyone a report on the state of the signaling as various "improvement" projects progress.  I had previously reported on the state of the Albany-Rensselaer terminal complex, formerly controlled by LAB tower.  As of last year, CP-141 and CP-142 had been rebuilt and transferred to the new Hudson North dispatcher (on weekdays at least) along with a new CP-138 controlled point replacing the old CP-141 holdout.  Rule 562 was in effect between CP-141 and CP-138 and work was ongoing to rebuild CP-143, which was placed in service later in 2016.

CP-143 being rebuilt in early 2016
  Fast forward a year and not only have CP-144 and CP-145 been rebuilt and placed under the control of the Amtrak dispatcher, but the second track is not in service between Albany and Schenectady.  New signals at up at CP-145 with the Rule 562 No "Fixed ABS" signs in place for westbound traffic.  Signals are SafeTran modular targets as were seen at CP-141 and CP-138.

CP-145 before its 2016 rebuild
I can also confirm that CP-146 has also been rebuilt to the same standard and I can also safely assume that CP-156 has met the same fate, along with all intermediate signals.

CP-156 in 2016 with construction about to begin.
The good news is that CP-159 and CP-160, situated on either side of the Schenectady station, show no signs of reconstruction, and neither do the intermediate signals between CP-160 and the end of Amtrak ownership at CP-169 in Hoffmans.  The lack of "No Fixed ABS" signs at CP-159 also hint that the two-track signal NYC signal gantry between CP-156 and CP-159 is still in service.  Issues with being able to finance the Schenectady Station reconstruction will hopefully prioritize that over signal replacement.

Rewinding a bit, not effort has started on the much talked about Hudson Line re-signaling project below CP-138.  It will be interesting to see what gets prioritized in the likely funding squeeze ahead.

CP-89 and its friends on the Hudson Line are so far untouched.
In some related news, the last islands of classic D&H searchlights appear to be falling as new signals are ready to go up at CPF-483, located at the south end of Mohawk Yard.  The classic D&H/B&M signal bridge is being replaced as well.  The one interesting thing was that I was finally afforded a closeup of the CP off-brand US&S N-3 non-modular traffic light type signal.  At least that's a little better than the SafeTran clamshell :-\  Also, the relay hut was freshly painted so that might also be seeing a second act.

 Fortunately, years of tireless effort has allowed me to document most of the now replaced, removed or retired signaling locations. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Gosts of Winslow Junction

The following originally appeared in The Trackside Photographer in June of 2016 and was based on a trip I took on Black Friday 2015.  I'd like to do more on Winslow Jct, but in the state it is in now I would need additional access to the tower interior and/or historic photos. Until then, enjoy the historic exploration angle and watch The Trackside Photographer for additional contributions in the near future.

Winslow Junction is located at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens almost exactly half way between Philadelphia and the resorts in Atlantic City.  The site is surprisingly rural for something set in the most density populated of the United States, however 100 years ago Winslow Junction could boast some of the highest traffic densities in the world as two railroads competed to bring millions of middle and working class passengers to the fun and leisure of the New Jersey shore.

In the few decades between the time when workers developed the ability to enjoy leisure time in the late 19th century and and when private automobiles and inexpensive air travel expanded their options in the mid 20th, Atlantic City was one of several resort cities that owed their fortunes to efficient rail transport.  Like Brighton Beach, New York and Brighton, England, Atlantic City relied on a conveyor belt-like system of trains that whisked holiday seekers from the urban core to the beach in the brief period that were released from their jobs. Winslow Junction sat at the nexus of this system located at the point where the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Southern Division crossed both the Camden and Atlantic (PRR) and Atlantic City Railroad (Reading) main lines.  It was also the point where the ACRR's Cape May branch split off from their Main Line with additional connections to the CNJ for its famed "Blue Comet" express service to New York City.

Improving road transport brought rapid change to the Atlantic City travel market and in 1933 the compering Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading System operations were merged into the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. In 1934 the state of the art WINSLOW tower and its associated interlocking was constructed to bind the system together at its nexus point, replacing older mechanical towers and antiquated signaling.  The air operated switches and cab signals were installed on over route 5 route miles of track, all controlled from a single power interlocking machine in a brand new brick tower.

Winslow Tower - PRR styling, P-RSL ivy green.

However the story of Winslow Junction from then on would be mostly one of decline.  As Atlantic City faded, tracks were cut back and the main lines were downgraded.  Finally in 1983 passenger service to the shore was suspended and the interlocking plant in the middle of the Jersey pines was shuttered for good. Fortunately, state ownership meant that the artifacts were largely left in place.  Reconstruction of the Atlantic City rail line in 1989 swept away some of the decay, but the tower's unbroken windows still let in sunlight to shine on the Model 14 interlocking machine for nearly 20 years before they were boarded up.

Windlow Tower northbound with its replacement, NJT's SOUTH WINS interlocking.

The main line to Atlantic City that in its heyday hosted the fastest scheduled passenger train service in the world is now a single track line with short passing sidings with a top speed of 80mph.  The interlocking that remains in sight of the tower is just a single crossover at the south end of one of those sidings.  The second track is now just a glorified storage track, albeit one sporting 136lb main line rail with some joints still still paper thin.  

Rusted 6-bolt main line rail on the storage siding.

Year by year, bit by bit, more of Winslow's history succumbs to collectors, vandals and nature.  The telegraph poles have fallen to those interested in the copper wire or blue glass insulators.  The power supply was bulldozed for PCB remediation and even the half mile long ramp for the Cap May flyover was completely harvested for its supply of high quality construction sand.

Cape May Branch flyover, abandoned in the late 1950's as shore traffic declined.

If anything, Winslow Junction is a testament to the force of nature to reclaim that where the humanity tried to assert its dominance.

A PRR style signal ladder is all that remains of the 10L signal on the flyover bridge.

At the same time it is a testament to those materials of the analogue age that continue to resist the forces of nature, decades after being left to fend for themselves.  Creosoted wooden ties, lead painted pipelines and even rust covered structural steel still stand strong.

Many of the classic PRR position light signals at Winslow Junction were salvaged by local railroad enthusiasts during the Amtrak rebuilding project in the late 1980's, however the former 8L signal stationed at the south junction of the connector track was rolled down the embankment to fade away.

The track connecting the former Atlantic City Line to what became the Conrail Beesley's Point freight line saw a brief resurgence after the tower was closed as it was the only way that Atlantic City bound freight traffic could access the line after the portion between the Delair Bridge and Winslow Junction was taken out of service.  When the line was rebuilt the interchange moved to SOUTH WINS interlocking and the S-curving connector was first left to the weeds.   In addition to the rails, this NJT friction bearing M of W flatcar found itself stuck in time.

The 1934 southbound P-RSL Cape May ramp ducks under the older connection between Reading and PRR main lines. The pipe carried the compressed air supply to the south end of the interlocking plant.

Winslow Junction was built with no fewer than 6 rail-rail overpasses to allow movements to pass by eachother without conflict.  This amount of "flight" is typically reserved for busy urban junctions like Zoo, Harold or Jamaica.  Elsewhere in the country, junctions similar to Winslow would have consisted of flat switches and diamond crossings.

Winslow air line near the top of the Blue Comet ramp.

The air for the switches was supplied by nearly 2.5 miles of pipeline, originating at WINSLOW tower and  then following the CNJ Blue Comet connection up to the ACRR junction before splitting with one line continuing down the Cape May branch and the other using the connecting track to serve the switches around the flyover bridge on the former PRR main line.   Most of this impressive compressed air system was left in place where it is slowly being covered by leaves and vegetation.

Air line running along the shoulder of the county road close to the tower.
Surprisingly this isn't the only abandoned pipeline at Winslow Junction.  On the remaining connecting track between the CNJ and Reading are a collection of concrete blocks dating from before even the depression era WINSLOW tower.  These are foundations for the mechanical pipes that ran from the original ACRR Winslow Jct tower to switches and signals on the CNJ connection.

Concrete footings for a mechanical pipeline run down the CNJ connection to the location of the former wye switch where footings for old signals can also be found.
 While somewhat common overseas, the  mechanical lever operated switch machine in North America was retired in 2010.

Pipeline footings pointing towards the remains of the old ACRR Winslow Jct tower.
Nearly invisible from the track and ensconced in a thicket of brambles and weeds, the foundation for the 1890's vintage Reading owned ACRR tower can still be found.  The upper level raised in1934, the basement continued to be used as a remote relay room and possibly as a secondary air compressor station.  Today, still water tight, it is used as a clubhouse for local teens, looking to consume adult beverages away from the prying eyes of adults.

Winslow Junction is a double accident of history.  Constructed in the middle of nowhere to take the masses to the shore in the pre-auto era, it was left to fade away due to having become the ward of a state that couldn't be bothered to properly dispose of it. Hopefully its secrets will linger on to inspire future generations of trackside explorers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

NS Windup Signals Winding Down

So I was out this weekend documenting some locations on the former N&W H-Line in West Virginia and I saw an intermediate signal being replaced and it prompted me to devote a whole post to the interesting experiment of NS installing what I like to call "windup signals" in Virginia and Pennsylvania around the turn of the century.

Old windup at JC cabin
Windup signals are a type of signal mast that avoids the need for a ladder to service the heads and change the bulbs.  Instead, an internal cable mechanism allows a maintainer to crank the entire head assembly up and down so that all the work that used to be done from a ladder of bucket truck, can be performed from the safety of the ground.  they were typically employed as stand alone replacements, although they were used in a few re-signaling schemes (typically automatic only).

Windup at ORANGE interlocking
The idea is that working from the ground would not only be faster, but also avoid a large number of injury claims that can result from workers climbing signal ladders in the dark or inclement weather. This concept is increasingly found in Europe, although they tend to prefer tip over signals that can be unlatched at the base and then tipped over for servicing.   However the reason it never caught on in the United States was because instead of just being able to work on a signal and have trains pass as if it were dark, the entire signal has to be taken out of service.  This meant a train order had to be passed to any train in the area that such and such a signal simply didn't exist until further notice.  I don't know if this safety issue came up after the windup signals started to be installed or if NS felt the hassle was justified, but whatever the case, NS soon switched to 'tombstone" style Darth Vaders and never looked back.

Windup intermediate just south of Culpepper, VA
Personally I've always detested windup signals because they just reek of cheapness.  They look like toys instead of signals and also lack the always positive feature of user serviceability.  Still, they are different and in this increasingly bland signaling environment that is something I can appreciate.  The good news is that a number of windups went in on the former Conrail Harrisburg Line when that was re-signaled in the early 2000's and it appears that the PTC menace will not involve many signal replacements, so any fans out there will still have a place to get some photos.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

To Float or Not to Float

I wanted to discuss a topic I have mentioned multiple times in other posts, but never really addressed head on.  This is the distinction between the two flavors of traffic control operation in North America typically known as Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) or Traffic Control System (TCS).  In one flavor, each segment of track has a permanent traffic state that is in one direction or the other with signals against the flow of traffic all dropped to their most restrictive indication (usually Stop and Proceed / Restricted Proceed). 

Traffic set opposed on tks A and 3
 In the other flavor, if no route is set from an adjacent interlocking, the traffic direction "floats" to an undefined state where block signals in both direction display a signal based solely on block occupancy.  This leads to signals displaying favorable indications in both direction at the same time, similar to non-traffic controlled bi-directional ABS lines. 

No following train causes opposing signal to float to Clear 

The first method is most commonly associated with the Union Switch and Signal company, which implemented "traffic levers" on its Left-Right interlocking frame and unit lever interfaces.  The second is most often associated with General Railway Signal, who tended to use its N-X style interface where displaying a signal would automatically set traffic between there and the next interlocking.  However, in modern times these corporate distinctions are not always clear and I have seen exceptions to the "floating" style within a single track segment! 

Hudson Line Intermediate 79 like to float.

While adjacent signal 81 does not!
The "traffic lever" system is perhaps the easiest logically to implement.  Some sort of constant state is transmitted between interlockings and each intermediate (perhaps a + or - voltage on a wire) and a relay at each signal location senses the direction of traffic.  The floating system requires a reliable way to hold the signal state until the train passed and the route is released and then allow opposing signals to clear.  The payoff for this complexity is that while under a traffic lever system the track segment must be completely clear before the direction can be reversed, the float system can handle reverse movements line a train in a non-interlocked siding as soon as the first train passes.  This also reduces problems from track circuit failures that can can cause a "traffic lever" to become locked until the failure is repaired.

In the above video you can see the floating system in action where the far signal immediately upgrades from Stop and Proceed to Advance Approach.  In the absence of any signal at the next interlocking, both signals would flash Advance Approach. Determining which system is in use on a particular line can be tricky.  If you see any of the above behavior with reverse signals automatically clearing or opposing signals in CTC territory both showing favorable indications, then the float system is in effect.  However the absence of said behavior does not indicate the use of traffic lever as the preceding controlled signal could be fleeted for following movements.   However, given sufficient observations, if one never sees signals automatically upgrading behind a train, it is likely that traffic lever logic applies. 

If your opposing signal never clears, you might be in traffic lever country.
I will update this space if/when I learn how these systems are technically implemented and if I can confirm if traffic lever is still associated with US&S and float with GRS.  If anyone has this information, please leave a comment.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

Raising a Toast in DC's Last Towers?

I recently came upon some information regarding the possible fates of Washington DC's two remaining interlocking towers.  These are the still active K Tower, at Amtrak's Union Station, and the former PRR VIRGINIA tower at the junction of the passenger route through Union Station and the Landover freight bypass.  Both locations have been the subject of recent development efforts and preservation of both towers have actually been addressed in the planning. 

When CSX started its Virginia Ave Tunnel clearance project in 2015, part of the agreement with the city was that VIRGINIA tower was to not only be left in place, but also cleaned up and stabilized.  That means roof and window repair along with some sort of move towards adaptive reuse.  It was reported that some of the ideas include a bar, museum or even a boutique micro hotel.  So called "security concerns" might derail some or all of these plans, but given the size of the building I would say that a museum might be the most likely option. 

The same article also links to Amtrak's Union Station Master Plan that portends a similar far for the iconic K Tower, which would be covered over by some sort of terminal roof desk that would support an urban redevelopment project.  The active tower itself would be moved into some sort of office, while the physical building would be moved around and turned into a cafe or bar.  While the Union Station plan seems a bit more certain about the bar idea, cities reaching "peak millennial" or a Trump induced economic collapse could put the development on hold (at least for a time, like with the West Side Rail yard redevelopment). 

Needless to say I am unenthusiastic about any project that would turn an active tower into a stuffed animal head on the wall.  As tempting as selling air rights are, having trains scamper into underground rabbit dens are never a good way to enter a great city.  Development comes in waves and both DC and NYC have been cresting for some time now.  Hopefully the cycle will turn around and travelers on the NEC will be treated to K Towers cheery copper facade for decades to some.

Monday, January 16, 2017

New Year's News

Things have been pretty quiet as of late, but I did manage to tease out a few news items of note over the holiday season. 

Starting off with Amtrak, it appears that the new CP-143 at Albany-Rensselaer had been  cut over with LED searchlights replacing the classic ones and new double slip switches reducing the bottlenecks that would frequently occur when Empire trains mixed it up with late running long distance trains requiring a power change.  With the new second track nearing completion between Albany and Schenectady, my trip to the area in February will hopefully not be too late.

Is a shocking turn of events, NS has stepped up its assault on the former N&W H-Line in Virginia with new signals appearing at the famous Shepherdstown, WV location as well as others.  This is truly disappointing because the line was last re-signaled ~2000 with new logic cut into the old signal hardware, as was the style at the time.  This is definitely a must visit for anyone in the area.

New signaling continues to appear in the Akron area as the last CPLs on the old B&O Main Line brave the assault.

In political news, it will be interesting to see if the PTC horseshit is rolled back under the Trump administration.  That is the exact type of costly, useless regulation that should be targeted for elimination, but it is so far off anyone's radar that it is unlikely that anything will be done, especially due to the bizzare support it has in congress.  My theory is that the mandate is simply a ploy by the truck lobby to hobble rail transportation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Conrail's Dynamic Distants

Ah the humble distant signal.  A fixed light or blade that warns the inattentive that they are approaching the civilizing influence of an interlocking.  In most places the fixed distant is an unimportant footnote that occasionally serves as the last refuge of the semaphore.  Now one of these days I'll probably do a whole post about the many types and rules relating to fixed distants, but today I am going to feature the fixed distant's much less common cousin...the dynamic distant.

This one picture pretty much captures the full gamut of fixed distants

 Sometimes a railroad is in the mood to inform trains approaching a absolute signal on otherwise unsignaled tracks about the condition of said signal  Now I know some people might assume that if you want a train to approach an interlocking under signal control, just bang in an automatic block signal and Bob's your uncle.  Well, they'd be right and this method remains a popular way for protecting interlocked junctions. Just stat your signaled a couple miles sooner with no need for any additional rules.

 Of course the PRR had to be different and because they were one of the largest users of the Manual Block System, they incorporated that into their design of dynamic distant signals.  Here we see a surviving example on the LIRR that supports a Clear, Approach Medium, Approach and "Caution" (upper head \ ).  PRR's Caution signal is basically Manual Block Approach with the distinction being that trains also have to approach any switch protected by the signal prepared to stop.  Because the Manual Block protection would negate the risk of another train on the line, there is no need for a Stop and Proceed aspect.  However if a switch has been opened to break the track circuit then Caution provides the necessary warning.

Kinda looks like a flower on a stick
Of course in the NORAC era position lights were out and color lights were in.  However vestiges of the old manual block system live on in the form of two aspect dynamic distants displaying Approach Clear and Approach Restricting (different than the one we discussed last week if you recall).  Southern New Jersey, home of the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, is one place where Manual Block hung around into the 1980's and as a result it retained a few dynamic distants.  

Distant to CP-WOODBURY on the Vineland Secondary
They are of course the color light variety, having replaced former PRR position lights similar to the LIRR ones sometime in the 2000's.  Unlike the PL's, they do not convey block information and signal state is transmitted via a microwave link instead of through track circuits.  The older PRR era signals, seen in this signal diagram, did convey block information in the same manner as the LIRR signal.

The one on the Penns Grove Secondary, seen above, is actually being replaced by a CTC project of all things so I guess what's old (the track circuit block) is new again. 

Anyway,this sequence of photos have been designed to lead you on a visual journey from the fixed and ABS distants of "other" railroads, to the PRR style of fully featured Manual Block distants and finally to their Conrail color light replacement.  The point of the journey is to show how the PRR's Manual Block heritage has lived on into the modern era and if these photos don't convince you, compare the Conrail distants to this little example.

As you can see, they are quite clearly a vestige of Manual Block in a CTC world.