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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

PHOTOS: Amtrak LAKE ST Tower

It's been a while, but it is finally time to conclude my METRA Tower series by looking at a tower that wasn't METRA's at all, but played a large role in METRA operations.  This would be Amtrak's LAKE ST tower, situated (until recently) at the north end of Chicago's Union Station.  The tower was built by the same PRR/MILW/CBQ consortium that built the entire Chicago Union Station complex in the mid-1920's.  Despite its prominence I have not yet been able to locate any period interlocking diagrams or other information that could better inform my talk, but since when has that stopped me before ;-)


Built during the roaring 20's, LAKE ST exhibited all the opulence of the era with a tile roof, copper gutters and all brick construction.  During the Amtrak era is was actually upgraded with modern picture windows and ample exterior lighting.  LAKE ST was closed in 2005 after 80 years of service and then demolished in 2013 due to an overbuild project to cover the tracks with either condos or a park. Until then it was a fixture of the north side railfan scene, viewable from the adjacent Lake Street bridge and easy to work into all sorts of photo angles. This may seem like the typical story of a classic big city tower, but LAKE ST was something special and one tip off is the windows.

Like many Chicago area towers, LAKE ST was equipped with an emergency exit.
The south side of Chicago Union Station is far more complex and sees far more traffic.  With road bridges providing an unobstructed view of the action it is what people think of when they think about long distance passenger rail in Chicago.  That part of Chicago Union Station was controlled by HARRISON ST tower, an elevated affair that was eventually surrounded by the new post office building in the mid-1990s.  At the time Amtrak also embarked on a large scale re-signaling project on the south side replacing the old Model 14 machine in Harrison Street with modern relay logic and the PRR position light signals with B&O style CPL dwarfs and high color lights.

What main people failed to realize was that the north side interlocking controlled by LAKE ST was left completely untouched and moreover, control of the south side plant was moved to a large NX panel in LAKE ST tower.  Thus LAKE ST wasn't just a tower, but was the control facility for the entire Chicago Union Station complex. Thus, nice new lighting and big picture windows.


 In 2005 time finally caught up with LAKE ST as a $45 million, 2-year project to re-signal the north end finally came to fruition.  This saw the replacement of the PRR PL dwarfs with LED searchlights, the implementation of a new CANAL ST interlocking to replace what had been a number of hand throw crossovers north of LAKE ST interlocking proper and the consolidation of all Chicago signaling control into the CUS office complex.  This included the closure of Amtrak's 21ST interlocking at the southern gateway to the CUS complex as well.  The interior photos I have of LAKE ST were taken just before and then a few years after its closure.


Here we see a post closure photo the 95-lever US&S Model 14 interlocking machine originally installed in 1925.  The large number of white painted spare" levers is due to the rolling closure where successive parts of the interlocking plans were cut into the new vital logic.  At the time of its closure the LAKE ST Model 14 was down to 9 signal levers, 4 switch levers and one traffic lever.


The model board shows the layout as it originally was with 11 station tracks that fanned out from a three track main line.  9 of the tracks are stub end with 2 additional through station tracks and 1 bypass track.  Station tracks are given odd numbers as even numbered tracks are on the south side of the station.  The model board is 4-colored in accordance with Milwaukee Road practice and uses green lamps for track occupancy.  Displayed signals are not shown on the model board.  Alterations have been made with a combination of black tape and hand painted lines.  On the through tracks a number of signals that are controlled from the NX panel are indicated with the N/S suffix opposed to L/R.  A quick count indicates 7 doubleslip switches, 11 single turnouts and 5 crossovers.


 In this opposite view of the model board we can see the entrance to the interlocking at the grade crossing with Canal St.  Most of LAKE ST interlocking is located underground a block or two north of the tower itself.  The tower only had direct sight of a few hand throw crossovers near Canal St and the outer crossovers between Lake St and Randolph St.  One of the reasons for the rolling cutover was because the interlocking was not only resignaled, but also reconfigured.  Compare the model board above with a facing point ladder track, stub end track 5 and a non-circuited track passing close to the tower to the current layout below.


Here we see a parallel trailing point ladders, one of which employs a doubleslip, the other a scissors crossover between the two center tracks.  The non-circuited track has been removed leaving the single station bypass track.For a more complete view of the current interlocking layout please refer to this computerized model board of the Chicago Union Station area. 


Back inside the tower we see an odd blank patch on the interlocking machine where lever spaces 1 through 32  had been removed.  This does not appear to have been part of the re-signaling effort given the age and condition of the metal.  Looking at the model board I suspect there was some spare capacity at the lower end of the machine in addition to some of the northern part of the plant being made redundant through hand operated switches. Without lever positions on the frame I am unsure how the 16L, 18L, 20L, 24R, 26R and 28R holdout signals at Canal street were controlled.

 Closeup view of the levers looking down the frame towards the emergency exit door.  The bay window is to the left of the photo.  Last active lever is 94, but the frame has space for 95.


Another view of the levers this time showing the mix of 1920's and modern track lighting fixtures. 



Moving back in time to 2004 we see the tower towards the end of the re-signaling project.  The Model 14 machine is still in service, but most functions have been transferred to a pair of NX panels sitting over the blank section of the frame. The remaining part of the interlocking still controlled by the Model 14 is covered over on the panels.






 View of the model board in 2004, showing some of the track occupancy lamps still illuminated. There appears to be some overlap between what is under the control of the NX panels and what is still shown on the model board. We can also see the view the operators had out across the Chicago river.


Going back to 2007 here you can see how the south side NX panel was installed in LAKE ST tower.  This made the tower a busy place with at least 2 or 3 operators on duty at any time. 

Up until the present day Amtrak's Chicago Union Station complex is a bit of an odd duck that does not use the typical dispatcher control methods used elsewhere.  Today those that play the CUS video game in office cubicles are classified as Train Directors, a position associated with interlocking towers.  This is a result of CUS being under complete tower control right up until the 2005 re-signaling. At around 2 miles in length, the entire complex simply has no need for an extra level of train supervision.


Closer view of the south side NX model board.  It all looks so simple when spread across an entire room.  The stylized diagram bares only passing resemblance to the real life layout.  


Closer view showing the manual switch position levers and the NX controls.  The south side received a signaling update as it was transitioned from the old monolithic NX panel to new computer terminals inside CUS.  Amtrak changed the signaling arrangement from NORAC style speed signals to "western" style route signals.  CPLs were mostly replaced with searchlight LED's and the terminal area was split into multiple logical interlockings as opposed to "locations" on the single "Harrison St" replacement NX panel.


In these 2004 photos we can see the NX board and the two operator positions, one covering the old LUMBER ST tower area and the 4 ladder tracks north of Roosevelt Ave,


 The other covering the terminal throat proper.  Ah, nothing says "US&S" like the US&S logo.


The north end got a similar treatment with multiple logical interlockings.  One of these was CP-CANAL, which restored some of the functionality that had been removed from the "low" end of the machine.  Here is the new layout at the northern entrance to the CUS complex.


And the relay cabin supporting it.


Here the closed LAKE ST sits next to its partial replacement.  It is not obvious, but in front of the CP-CANAL relay cabin is a CP-CANAL sign, still covered up as Amtrak rolled out the new interlocking names in the various employee documentation.


Here is the local control panel for CP-CANAL located inside the relay cabin.  It's kind of missing something compared to the old hand painted model board.


On the north side the old US&S A-5 pneumatic switch machines were replaced with these low-profile M3 family machines.  I believe this particular version has some sort of electronic point detection instead of electro-mechanical.  


The new standard signal are these not all together bad LED searchlights.  Shame these haven't caught on elsewhere. 


As a city of skyscrapers, LAKE ST tower was visible from many Chicago landmarks including the Sears Tower and nearby Holiday Inn.  


The demolition of LAKE ST tower was a real loss.  Concentration of railway control facilities in office buildings does come with cost savings, but also risks when it comes to various situations that require evacuation.  Computer terminals can function from anywhere.  I feel more comfortable when block operators and train directors are given a window. 


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