The Final Harvest Season

To the casual observer, this scene would suggest only the illumination of an incandescent bulb behind a green fresnel lens on Signal 482.4 as it sends out a clear indication to an approaching northbound train on the Union Pacific McGehee Subdivision. It is a scene that has been repeated countless times for well over a decade.

But it is November 14, 2013, and Signal 482.4 will soon fall victim to PTC-induced modernization as progress marches onward. With a replacement signal assembled and ready for installation, Signal 482.4 now sees the inevitable, impending doom of progress. It probably feels the same as the original Missouri Pacific signals felt when they were pushed aside. Originally installed elsewhere on the former Missouri Pacific, Signal 482.4 has witnessed the magic and mystery of the Mississippi River Delta region during its stay. The burning, brutal heat and humidity of summer, the cold, biting winds of winter and the ever-present severe storm threat during spring have all tested the resilience of Signal 482.4 and its ability to safely govern train movements.

Signal 482.4 basks in the last light of a perfect autumn day, free of challenges other than its impending death at the hands of progress. It seems appropriate that its last days are spent in tranquility, after the bustle of harvest season and with nothing other than a slight chill in the air to let it know that the cold of winter is coming. But Signal 482.4 won’t feel the cold of the upcoming winter. Its life is almost over. It will end just as other vintage signals across the nation have ended their lives—at the end of a torch.

When I returned just a few weeks later Signal 482.4 was gone . . .


I don’t know what made me shoot this image. Maybe it was a sense of finality. Maybe it was in an effort to show my appreciation and respect for the engineering and manufacturing behind the signal. Perhaps it was just to record an artistic image. Regardless of the reason, I am glad that I captured it. When I returned just a few weeks later Signal 482.4 was gone, replaced by hooded, LED equipped, “one-size-fits-all” signals that have no heritage, no experience and none of the charm that Signal 482.4 possessed.

It was, truly, the final harvest season in every respect.

Danny JohnsonPhotographs and text Copyright 2018

Last Stand on the Topeka Sub

The cantilever at Eudora, Kansas. with one US&S searchlight, stood for nearly a century. It is now gone.

Since 2015, I have lived on or near the BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Subdivision. This proximity has allowed me to watch firsthand the replacement of the searchlights, color light signals, and the code lines that have governed the subdivision for decades. All over the country, on busier lines, the old signals have been falling, rapidly replaced by Positive Train Control (PTC) and the new, “Vader” style color light signals. The BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Sub is no exception. Running from Holliday to Emporia, Kansas (KS), this portion of the BNSF has acted as a relief valve for the busy Emporia Sub. It also hosts Amtrak’s #3 and #4, the east and westbound Southwest Chiefs. While the signals on many lines have been upgraded on many parts of the BNSF system, the Topeka Sub has largely been untouched. That is until now. Read more

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 Main Line. 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.

Read more

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