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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Zombie Apocalypse - HAROLD Tower Closes For Good (Or Not)

EDIT: My source was mistaken and HAROLD tower is NOT being demolished (at least not yet).  It's still an interesting story of HAROLD living on as a zombie interlocking tower.

For over two decades now the Long Island Rail Road's HAROLD tower has held a special place in interlocking tower lore.  The massive interlocking, across the East River in Sunnyside, Queens, is second only to the Jamaica complex in terms of traffic density and rivals the likes of DOCK and UNION on the other side of the HUDSON.  The interlocking was so critical to the daily flow of commuters on North America's busiest commuter railroad that when the interlocking was re-signaled in 1990, the old 1910 vintage structure was actually replaced by a brand new manned interlocking tower, perhaps the last traditional type interlocking tower built on the continent.

Granted the new tower was rather austere, much like NJT Terminal Tower that predated it by a few years, but it was still a interlocking station, manned 24/7, on a railroad that still has a thing for manned interlocking stations.  Clearly it's future would be meaningful.

No not...  You see in 1994 the Penn Station Control Center opened with a brand new video display setup and computer aided dispatching.  PSCC closed 4 towers in Penn Station, F Tower at the eastern mouths of the tunnels and also HAROLD tower as it's ole sorting out Amtrak Hellgate traffic from LIRR commuter trains was not something that could be split from the new dispatching center.  However in 1994 computers were still a new and not always reliable tool in railroad dispatch.  Amtrak was so concerned about computer failures completely shutting down the NEC that the PSCC was equipped with a giant NX board that could be operated manually.  Since HAROLD was just as important for the efficient functioning of Penn Station it retained its own local control capacity as an active interlocking station

See the employee platform, AC unit and safety sign? Looks like signs of habitation

At this point HAROLD became a "zombie tower", operating "as needed", never open, but not officially closed.  Now the following is all based on anecdotes I have heard over the years, so take them as you may, but as I understand it, in the early days HAROLD was actually opened infrequently as the bugs were worked out of the computerized system in PSCC.  Like the old "Harold Protect Job" I heard stories of the tower being manned at peak time, but only operating if something went screwy.  Others say that qualified operators were simply on standby at other locations with the ability to open HAROLD in a hurry.  I heard it was opened for certain demanding situation like a shut down East River Tube or disabled trains.  Whatever the truth was, by the mid-2000's it was clear that HAROLD was only open once in a blue moon, if at all.

The real interlockig is across the tracks in the massive relay shed.

While many people told me that HAROLD was closed, closed, closed, I always suspected that it was still in its state of living death.  As long as the interlocking was not re-signaled (again), I doubted that anyone would go about ripping out the interlocking machine inside the tower.  Even if it was only a glorified local control board, if HAROLD still looked like a tower and was still capable of the functions of a tower...well it was still an active tower.

HAROLD 1990-2015 
You were adequate.

Well, I finally got word that it was closed for good and if you are wondering what sort of evidence convinced me of that it is the fact that the tower is being demolished for the East Side Access project.  HAROLD interlocking itself had been drastically altered and re-signaled to make way for the tunnels that will divert LIRR trains to Grand Central so I it figures that an old relic of the not too distant past...a plain brick box of limited usefulness, would not get much sympathy from planners and engineers.  So, like the PRR position lights that populated the area like weeds, HAROLD is no more.  Farewell HAROLD.  You were bland and boring, but in an age of ever dwindling numbers of towers we took what we could get.

PS: If anyone has any actual information regarding HAROLD's operation in its later days, or better yet pictures taken inside, let me know and I'll update this post.

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