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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.


  1. The windup signal mechanism was found to be totally inadequate. It was a bad design in that the spool for the windup is constantly holding the signal heads up. Over time the cable corrodes and the cable breaks and the heads come crashing to the ground. Most of the ones you see now have the mechanism removed and the heads are welded in the up position. This now requires the Maintainer to have a bucket truck to service them.

    They also can not hold a three head signal.

    NS has targeted most of these for replacement ASAP, as they have become a huge hassle.

    1. Thanks for the update. My information was last updated many years ago, so I am not sure if the additional cable corrosion issue had reared its head by that time.

  2. TL;DR: "Catbox" signals are some of the ugliest out there. Good riddance!

    I don't automatically hate new signals. I don't hate railroads for choosing or having to replace iconic old signals with newer and sleeker and more-modular technology. I think even shiny, new, homogeneous signals can be neat in their own way. I don't mind experimentation when it's warranted and creative. But "Catbox" signals are an offense to nature, and my loathing of them knows no rational bounds. Since I first laid eyes on them, I was sure they were styled by a sadistic model railroad signal manufacturer who thinks "LifeLike" always means what it says and it says so on the tin. Again... good riddance!

    1. You might want to avoid the UK. They have multiple types of cheap, plastic, no ladder, minimalist signals that are still being installed.