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Monday, October 31, 2016

BO Tower (1888-2016)

Right as scheduled, BO Tower in Kalamazoo, MI, finally closed after a strange zombie period brought about by contractual obligation.  As far as I can tell, the former Michigan Central (New York Central) tower was built in 1888(!) and for about 125 years retained its original mechanical lever frame in service.

The tower survived as long as it did for a number of reasons.  
  • First, the plant contained two diamond crossings of the MC Main Line as well as wyes and crossovers.  Railroads typically saved these types of interlocking for last. 
  • Second, the Conrail Michigan Line was one of those stepchildren that saw more passenger traffic than freight.  In fact Amtrak bought the MC route west of Kalamazoo to Porter, IN outright creating a stub line that Conrail was disinclined to invest in.  
  • Third, Amtrak didn't bother to take over dispatching duties of its own line until 2005, with a Conrail operator at Drawbridge Tower in Michigan Tower being paid to run CTC machine.  Operators at BO and Drawbridge gave Amtrak more personal service than having to get a hold of an overworked Conrail dispatcher.  
  • Fourth, NS went and effectivly leased the annoying Michigan Line to Amtrak in the aftermath of the financial crisis with MIDoT on hand with stimulus funding to upgrade the entire route for 110mph operation.  The agreement required NS to dispatch the line until 2016 when Amtrak would take over.  This means that while BO was re-signaled in the 2014-2015 time frame, the tower remained open with local control because of the lease agreement.

So what's next?  It was reported that the items inside the tower were removed for preservation in the Henry Ford Museum.  Unfortunately that implied that there might not be a plan to preserve the tower as is and wooden towers have a history of having to be demolished, even when preservation attempts are made (PD, MO, etc).  Still, BO tower was given a new roof about 10 years ago and it doesn't appear to be leaning so there could still be least until someone sets it on fire :-(

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Videos from Across the Pond

I just found a few interesting videos involving UK signalboxes.  The first two involve the Banbury North Signalbox , which was recently decommissioned, but then opened for public tours (a somewhat rare occurrence due to all the health and safety BS their railways are tied up in).  Unfortunately the signalbox, like many others, is slated for eventual demolition so little other purpose than it being there.  Britain's attitude towards its decommissioned signalboxes is downright baffling seeing as every foot of railway infrastructure is publicly owned and almost everything in the UK is covered by some sort of historic preservation law.  Network Rail also seems to be chronically pressed for cash and where they can find the funds for these demolitions is beyond me.

The first video shows the full tour that was given to the public and the second video shows the view from the locking room as the levers are manipulated.  Those of your from North America should keep in mind that mechanical British signalboxes such as this, typically work on the manual block system.  Some track circuits may be provided, but train movement is primarily by manual block using block instruments instead of voice or message communications.

The third video is from Harrow On The Hill signal cabin on the London Underground in 2002 and shows a Westinghouse Style N machine, which is basically a US&S Model 14 with the levers pivoted around 90 degrees so that they throw in the traditional "back and forth" orientation, instead of left and right.  Even the tri-positionality of some of the signal levers is retained.  The most fascinating thing about this video is the use of a pneumatic assist to move levers at the far end of the frame when certain route levers are pulled in the primary operating area.  It's basically a non-vital intra-tower remote control system that doesn't require additional relay logic, a serious expense in pre and post war Briton.  This technology was later extended to create the Style V frame where all the levers were moved primarily by remote control pneumatics.

BTW, if you are wondering why the model board is all lit it, is it because that was considered safety critical information and any bulb out had to mark the track circuit as "occupied".  Of course with the bulbs burning by default I am sure there would be plenty of bulb out opportunities.

Monday, October 17, 2016

STATE Tower Closes (1937-2016)

This weekend the world lost not only an interlocking tower, not only a PRR Main Line interlocking tower, but a PRR Main L interlocking tower still sporting its origional US&S Model 14 electro-pneumatic interlocking machine.  On a personal note, STATE was the first tower I was able to talk my want into (during a long layover on the old Three Rivers while express cars were being attached) and also the first classic interlocking machine I was able to operate. 

STATE was closed due to high speed rail stimulus funds or that transportation funding deal PA worked out a few years back or some combination of the two.  STATE was the last active tower west of THORN and at times had remote control over ROY and RHEEMS, until those two were transferred to the section C dispatcher attached to CTEC.  For those of you who are unaware, STATE's opposite, HARRIS, was preserved after its closure in 1990 and now serves as a museum.  unfortunately, since STATE is an office embedded inside the Harrisburg Station it is unlikely the same sort of thing would happen, however one never knows.

Middle floor, left of the bricked up windows.
In addition to the tower being closed, STATE interlocking was substantially rationalized.  Pneumatic point machines were converted to electric, parallel paths were removed, the engine pocket spur was eliminated, the double slip switch was shipped off to Albany and #8 track was turned into a stub.

Amtrak: We don't need no extra crossovers.
PRR: One more signal is never enough

In terms of what one might consider "upgrades", the almost entirely slow speed plant traded in some of its dwarfs for high Amtrak colorized PLs supporting Limited speed movements from the main platform, although any capacity gain was wasted by placing the only set of crossovers about a half mile away from the station end of the interlocking!   For those of you familiar with the Albany terminal rationalization project, you can tell Amtrak engaged the same set of consultants.

STATE re-signaling project- 10/2015
 This project has been metastasizing for a good 3-5 years now and a lot of what they were planing was evident when I visited last year for Halloween  I guess it was bound to happen at some point and I guess I should be thankful for the extra time we had to document the plant in the digital age and I guess the new gantry and cantilever mounted CzPLs will inspire railfans for decades to come, but with so few Model 14 machines (or any non-solid state interlocking machines) left in operation

STATE and ROY machines.
I have a lot of good photos both inside of the inside and outside of STATE to stay tuned for future articles covering them.  STATE may by gone, but it will not be forgotten.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


So a while a go I posted a piece on Amtrak's OVERBROOK interlocking in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia.  Today I will be focusing on the interior and exterior of tower itself so if you missed the first port go back and read it over as I won't be reiterating any of the interlocking specific information.  Most of the interior photos were taken in 2003 and 2004, while some of the exterior photos were taken between 2011 and 2015.  Part 1 of this two part look at OVERBROOK will cover the tower's exterior, first floor and Model 14 machine on the second floor.

OVERBROOK tower was built by the PRR in 1926 and was, chronologically, in the first wave of the all-brick style of towers that would become a trademark of the PRR in its later years.  OVERBROOK was soon expanded in 1941 as part of a CTC project that gave the tower control over the remote interlockings VALLEY and JEFF (on the Schuylkill Valley Branch ), as well as having its own limits expanded with control over the west end of Belmont Yard installed as OVERBROOK's "Woodbine" section under direct wire control.

Still, compared to other PRR towers, OVERBROOK is notable for its rather diminutive size.  Similar to later 1930's towers such as WINSLOW and YORK, it still presents itself as a bit smaller, especially compared to its sister towers elsewhere on the electrified main line.

The smaller size is more apparent in the quarter view where we can see that there is only one window on each of the sides, compared with two on the WINSLOW/YORK series of towers.  One feature that reduced the footprint was the location of the air compressor plant outside the tower.

Despite its location in a big city, Amtrak was never hesitant to store spare signaling components such as PL signal targets and A-5 point machine covers, in the open, behind the tower.

Like most PRR towers, OVERBROOK is fitted with an internal staircase with a ground level entry.  The money really shows with Flemish bond brickwork with a number of decorative courses.  Also note the canopy over the door complete with slate shingles.

The PRR standard bay window takes up most of the width of the tower and today is outfitted with a number of VHF radio antennas.  Also present is the interlocking horn, which is still functional and used to clear off people crossing the tracks in the station area.

A train order lamp, consisting of a single PL-2 unit, is still mounted on the east side of the tower.  With 4 tracks and one bi-directional, there was less need for train order hooping at OVERBROOK, but it still took place from time to time.  The 80's or 90's vintage Amtrak tower sign is clearly showing its years.  Don't look for any further investment in tower aesthetics as efforts to re-signal the line loom.

Here is another view of the front of the tower, complete with a 9/11 flag, before the platform was rebuilt in 2003.

Opening the door we are immediately greeted by the sound of clockwork ticking and the smell of the 1940's as we walk right into OVERBROOK's relay room.  Normally the relay room is locked and only accessible by C&S personel, however OVERBROOK is the rare exception where the operator can also poke about in the guts of the interlocking.  In this particular bay of the relay room we can see older shelf relays off to the left and "newer" plug type relays on the right.  Note the maintainer's chair, phone and stash of spare plug relays.  This interlocking and tower is actually assigned its own full time maintainer, likely near retirement and the only person who knows how things works.

The shelf relays are attached to the 1926 portion of the interlocking, which basically means the 4-track crossover.  Unfortunately I took these pictures back in 2003 when my camera card capacity was 96 photos, or I would have taken a lot more.