They All Fall Down

Lamenting the loss of a classic PRR signal—
The Position Light
Northward home signal, Bell Interlocking, PRR Maryland Division Mainline, New Castle County, Delaware, 2015. Bell, like many PRR installations of Position Light signals in the east, were installed concurrently with the various phases of electrification of the Eastern Region Mainline. This interlocking marks the divergence of the Shellpot Branch where freights enter Edgemoor Yard, on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware.

Like many other essential railroad technologies, signaling developed with the need to manage the ever-increasing frequency of trains safely as railways expanded in the 19th century. As companies grew they adopted various solutions, but by the first quarter of the 20th century, standard designs began to evolve, and suppliers became valuable assets to the rail industry. Union Switch & Signal and General Railway Signal became two of the most common names in American signaling. They offered stock solutions that railroads could adopt and apply to their given network, but also catered to larger roads who sought to develop proprietary designs. The more recognizable wayside signaling was of course only a fraction of the full signal system. Behind the scenes, relay cases, code generators, interlocking towers, CTC machines and dispatching offices were all tethered to miles of cable and track circuits. This complex network communicated the vitally needed information to their endpoint – the signals, that familiar line-side icon of railroading as we know it. Read more

Materials of Yesteryear

In 1967 young people were told that plastics were the future and the future did not disappoint. Today the world is made out of plastic, carbon fibre, corrosion resistant lightweight alloys, high strength concrete and LEDs. This technology has generally converted our world from one where stuff is expensive and people are cheap, to exactly the opposite. I could go on and on about the many economic ramifications of this, but in essence “things” went from being crafted and artisan, to being so invisible that they might as well not matter. Back in the day the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was the largest private employer in North America with over 300,000 employees, roughly the same as WalMart. This vast army of workers was needed to polish, paint, lubricate and generally maintain all of the expensive, labor intensive technology that allowed humans to move at speeds faster than brisk walk. Replacing the materials of old was part and parcel to being able to replace the workers that cared for them, however as we charge into the middle of the 21st century some of these materials have soldiered on in the service of railroad signaling and, until their inevitable replacement, they provide a window into the pre-digital industrial age.


Steel and Iron
CSX Washington Sub – South Orange Interlocking

Steel and iron are the stereotypical railroad materials as demand for bridges, rails and locomotives practically created the modern steel industry. Of course steel wasn’t just used for girders and boilers. Back in the day this was the only metal one had available for structural components of any size, and before the advent of plastic or other composites, metal was one of the only materials available with an adequate strength to weight ratio. Stronger, weather proof and more durable than wood, iron and steel became the materials of choice of railroad signals and signal structures. The US&S style N color light signal mast shown above is almost completely made of iron and steel, right down to the base. Cast iron housing and brackets, sheet steel backing, steel pipe mast, strap iron ladder work, heck, even the signal wires are sheathed in iron. Read more

Twenty-Two Hundred Miles
  and Counting

Part Two
Union Switch & Signal searchlights are mounted on the Santa Fe era cantilever at Verona, Illinois.

Early on a cold February morning in 2016, I left Topeka, Kansas for Prairie Village; a suburb of Kansas City. I was picking up my Mom and brother to continue my effort to photograph as many of the “old signals” as could be found. On most Class 1 railroads in the country, PTC is quickly taking over and I made it a priority to head east and document a few of the remaining color position lights, cantilever searchlights, and tri-lights before they were gone forever. This would be a continuation of the trip I took in August to photograph the last semaphores in New Mexico, and, as with that trip, the evidence that the end is near for the “old signals” was a constant on most of the journey.

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Twenty-Two Hundred Miles
 and Counting

Part One
The namesake mound for the town of Wagon Mound, New Mexico. sits just south of the semaphores on the BNSF’s Raton Subdivision

In 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring Class 1 railroads to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31, 2015.  This was the nail in the coffin for the remaining “classic signals” left in the United States—the signals we grew up with. Semaphores, tri-lights, color position lights, and searchlights; all were slated to come down, replaced with the new “Darth Vader” signals that many despise. This new legislation’s deadline was extended, giving time to capture the last gasp of the “old signals” that are falling by the day on railroads all over the country.

Like many, I nearly waited too long to capture these unique structures before they were gone, so it was time to get moving. Last July it became apparent that if I was to see and capture any of these signals I would need to act quickly. A decision was made that, along with my dad, I would take off on a four day adventure through the Southwest to capture the last semaphores in mainline service in the United States. Little did I know, there were other gems to be found along the way. Read more

In Remembrance

A Lamentation for the Distinctive

Sunset with Norfolk & Western signals at control point “Wysor,” Dublin, Virginia, December 21, 2016.

Railroads have long been known for doing things their own way. Often, this is quite contrary to the way things are done in other industries, and is perhaps even contradictory to logic. “Peculiar” would be a good word to describe the idiosyncrasies of railroads. But this is part of what endears the railroad to those of us afflicted with the love of the steel wheel upon the steel rail.

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Unfavorable Light

Old Signals - Towner Line near Haswell, CO - May 7th, 2016
Old Signals – Towner Line near Haswell, CO – May 7th, 2016

“There is no such thing as bad light,
just misunderstood light.”
Donald McCullin


That’s a quote I think a lot about. Like most photographers, I’m drawn to”blue hour” and “golden hour” light. It’s eye candy for us. Sometimes we get so obsessed with “good light,” though, that we ignore possibilities for other lighting situations. I find cloudy days wonderful for shooting detail shots with soft, even light. Night light (after blue hour) is made for contrasty, high drama photos. And yes, even harsh mid-day light can be useful.

This is a photograph that I took on a drive out on the plains east of my home in Pueblo, Colorado. The railroad line I’ve followed here is called the Towner Line and it’s part of the old Missouri Pacific Railroad. The line has faced some tough times lately and was poised to be abandoned and torn up. There’s an interesting legal case that may offer a reprieve, but even if that is the case, the line is still a shadow of its former self and faces many challenges.

The harsh mid-day light really called to me to tell that story. In this photo, we see the old signal with the lights and electrical components either scavenged or stolen. Colorado’s treeless plains form a background along with clouds that speak to the possibility of precipitation. What precipitation does fall will evaporate before hitting the ground and the strong winds caused by that effect will be the only hint of rain on this day. Life can be challenging on the high plains.

Had I taken this shot with the lower, warmer light of golden hour, I’m sure the result would have been more appealing aesthetically. However, I don’t think that it would have told the story that I intended it to. In the end, that’s always the most important component of any photo for me — conveying what it is that I feel when I take a photograph. In this particular instance, I’d like to think that I took a moment to understand the light as Mr. McCullin urged.

Christopher MayPhotograph and text Copyright 2016
See more of Christopher’s work at Fine Art Photography by Christopher May