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Saturday, October 19, 2013

PHOTOS: The Last Semaphores

In the year 2000 active Semaphore signals in North America were rare, but everybody new where to find them.  There were a few on the Southern Tier Line in NY State and of course the old Monon main line in Indiana and the CNW Station and Brighton Bark in Chicago.  Out west there were some in Montana, Oregon and of course New Mexico on the former ATSF Raton Pass line.  There was even a website you could go to,, that kept track of all the surviving semaphore signals so you could go find the one nearest you.

Well, the 19th century economics were electricity was more valuable than human labor could no longer be ignored and the old semaphores kept falling with the Oregon Southern dumping then in 2002, Brighton Park in 2007, the Monon semaphores finally in 2010. While I do believe there may be a few other active semaphores scattered around in parts of the west, and of course the plethora of fixed distants, the last stand of Semaphore signaling is taking place on the former ATSF Raton Pass Line.  Unfortunately the reason is not some strange 1980's Semaphore rehabilitation project, but the simple fact that BNSF is trying to abandon the route and are unlikely to spend any money to upgrade the signaling.  In fact BNSF had been replacing the semaphores at a fairly even clip when they just halted the project leaving a few new signal bases in want of a signal.  So like Z Tower in Keyser this is one of those situations that is only better before it gets catastrophically worse.

The photos I will present here are from the June 2013 trip on Amtrak's Train #4, the Southwest Chief.  They were taking in the eastbound direction facing west, but I will be slowing them off in ascending Milepost order which is in the westbound direction.  A second set of photos of the signaling on this route is available from and shows the same signals taken from train #3 in the eastbound facing direction can be found here in the sections 1001-1079 La Junta and 1080-1169 Lamy.

You can find my complete sets of photos covering the Semaphore section of the Southwest Chief route here and here.  Also many of the photos are at higher than normal resolution so remember to click the small form factor photos to see the whole thing.

We begin at the MP 706 automatic signal on the plain west of Springer, NM.  The signals on this route don't just represent the last of their specific type of signal, but also are showcases of several old style technologies such as pole-line communications, battery power supplies and bi-directional single track ABS signaling with signaled passing sidings. Note the new base for a replacement color light signal that was never installed when all capitol upgrade work was halted sever years ago.

Closeup of the MP 706 automatic.  All the semaphores on this route are US&S Style T-2's with pole mounted motors and relays stored in the case at the base of the mast.  Another interesting feature is the use of roud battery wells that are built into the concrete signal footing.

Semaphores at the east end of the Colmor siding at MP 709.  The blade automatically clears to an Approach position for the signals at the west end of the siding that remain at stop. Despite being automatic, the signals do not always behave as one would expect from a system with no traffic control at all.  I suspect there is logic at these sidings that will only attempt to clear an exit signal for an approaching train.

Eastbound signals at the east end of the Colmor siding.  Note the replacement base that was installed before the upgrade was called off.

West end of the Colmor siding.  Without number plates these signals are absolute, although this is not CTC territory and the signals operate automatically.  Note the sun coming through the spectacles and the blades which are no longer painted and have been left to weather into a uniform gray color.

Eastbound signal at West Colmor.  Note the use of spring switches to facilitate trains waiting in the siding getting moving again.

MP 712 automatics in the middle of a flat grassland.

MP 717 automatics.  Note the riveted fabrication of both the T-2 semaphore unit and the relay cases. 

The often photographed semaphore signals at West levy.  These are for westbound movements off the siding.  The east end of the siding has new color lights installed on the onmipresent bases before the boom lowered.

Eastbound signal and spring switch at West Levy.  At sidings the signals protecting the siding entrance are automatic.

MP 721 automatics with a mesa in the background and Interstate 25 off to the right.

 Westbound semaphore at the east end of Wagon Mond siding as it rises to the approach position.

Rear view of the eastbound signals.  Wider angle with the pole line feed.  The west end of this siding was one of those equipped with Darth Vaders and marks the east end of one of the more recent stretches of re-signaling.  The decision to pull freight off the route is the only thing that saved these and the previous semaphores.


Back into Semaphore Country at MP 744 with some automatics.

MP 746 semaphores with backlit spectacles. No signs of resignaling here.

MP 748 semaphore automatics.  Note the fairly new welded rail, which is somewhat of the exception on this line, contrasting with the ancient semaphores.

Semaphore at the east end of the Watrous siding displaying Approach.

Eastbound signals in a somewhat staggered formation.

West end of the Watrous siding with a pair of absolute exit semaphores.

Eastbound semaphore at west Watrous.  Here is a wider view showing the pole feed and new relay box which is in place due to the return to Darth Vader signaling.  This marks the end of the farthest east of the Raton semaphores.  

Semaphores return after the line passes Las Vegas, NM.  The first is of these are the MP 774 automatics.

In probably the best photo of the batch here is the westbound signal at the east end of the Ojita siding.  This is the best view of the grey plain wood color the semaphore blades have all faded to.

Eastbound signals at East Ojita.

Westbound signals at west Ojita.  In this occasion I caught one of the main line "absolute" semaphores Clearing automatically to the full Clear position.  Still unsure of what inputs are needed to generate this sort of behavior which was not present on the sidings further to the east.

Eastbound signal at West Ojita.

MP 781 automatics.  Approaching the Glorietta summit there is quite a bit more vegetation than out on the flat plains.

MP 783 automatics just shy of MP 784 itself.

Wide view of the MP 786 semaphores.

 While this part of the line is not part of Automatic Train Stop territory, because most trains running on the line are ATS equipped, a number of the more severe speed restrictions are protected by inert ATS inductors.  Here is one such ATS warning for westbound trains, the MP 786 semaphores in the distance.

Westbound semaphore at the east end of the Chapelle Siding displaying Approach.

Eastbound semaphores at the east ed of the Chapelle siding.  Closeup of the main train eastbound semaphore here.

Westbound signals at West Chapelle with the main track semaphore rising into the Approach position.

Eastbound semaphore at west Chapelle.

The MP 791 automatic marks the end of the central section of semaphore signaling.  Beyond this things change to slightly less old Searchlight signaling with an island of CTC running up and over the Glorietta summit.

The next set of semaphores are the westernmost and stand the strongest chance of being the last active semaphores in North America outside a museum.  While BNSF owns the line all the way to Levy, NM, beyond that the tracks are owned by the New Mexico Rail Runner commuter rail authority.  Moreover even if the Southwest Chief is rerouted it will still be necessary for trains to reach the Santa Fe Southern interchange at Levy.  As the state of New Mexico owns the track it will be more likley to leave the signaling intact pending a return of passenger rail to the route.  These last few semaphores have the added advantage of being in full blown Automatic Train Stop territory.

The first example is the MP 841 automatic for eastbound trains.  The signals are somewhat staggeredon this part of the line. Note the ATS shoe. Closeup of same shot here.

MP 846 westbound semaphore signal rising into the Approach position.

MP 847 eastbound semaphore signal.

Closeup of the US&S T-2 semaphore unit.

MP 849 westbound semaphore as it rises into the Approach postion.

Finally we reach the last of the last Semaphores...the eastbound MP 850 automatic.

To wrap things up here is a video of some of the central region semaphores as they rise after a passing train.

I don't know how long any of these previously featured signals these will continue to be in service and/or continue to stand.  Amtrak is committed to the Raton Pass route while BNSF is committed to not maintaining the line.  Even if the line is mothballed it is likely that the old signals will stand for some time until BNSF gets permission to scrap signaling on the route or just lets them fall prey to thieves as has happened on the Tennessee Pass DRG&W route.  The MNRR signals stand a better change of surviving, especially if the state funds a Rainrunner train to run from Lamy to the new Amtrak transfer point at Belen.  Either way, book tickets on the Chief and go check them out just in case.  Photos can be taken from the last coach.  Better yet grab a map and an off road vehicle and visit these pieces of living history yourself.  Just don't expect to see many trains that can bring them to life.


  1. I read that BNSF has announced that they are NOT abandoning this route after all (Lamy, NM to Newton, KS). They are keeping it because it is a possible detour route just in case their is a major wreck or disaster on their Belen - Amarillo - Oklahoma -Wichita route. Plus, there is an effort to fundraise enough money through the state governments to keep the Amtrak Southwest Chief on this route. Even there is no funding for this yet, this route could be used to add a train from Denver to El Paso someday.


  2. The five Semaphores on the Lamy, NM to CP Madrid section is owned by the NM DOT and they won't be changed out until they fail. I know the maintainers on that section that work for Herzog and those signals are cherished by those guys. They take really good care of them.