Friday, May 22, 2009

Missing the Towers

posted by Richard Gill

Lever bank of 67th Street Metra Control Tower
[Photo by Mark Llanuza]

On May 18, Metra Electric shut down the 67th Street control tower and transferred its function to the Central Control Facility downtown. The 67th Street tower, technically known as an interlocking, was the last of its breed on Metra Electric, and probably the last on all lines of the former Illinois Central Railroad. The electro-mechanical operation embodied in the 83 year old tower has been long surpassed by generations of electronics and communications technology.

I suppose this was an insignificant event, as events go. However, because this last remaining old workhorse happened to be in our neighborhood, its passing may carry with it a bit of a local historical edge. Ok, I worked there in the 1960s, so its passing also carries a bit of a personal edge.

Facilities like the 67th Street interlocking were responsible for controlling and routing train traffic through railroad crossings and junctions like the track complex at 67th Street. Through a tangle of manual levers, steel blocks, rods, mechanical relays, and small electric motors, operators would move switch points and set signals to keep the railroad fluid. The “interlocking” feature prevented the operator from clearing conflicting train movements and from moving switch points under a train.

51st Street Metra Control Tower
[Photo by Mark Llanuza]

The 67th Street tower is a nondescript two-story brick building on the west edge of the right-of-way near 67th Street. Its companion building, closed 46 years ago, sits on the west side of the tracks at 51st Street. The 51st Street building now serves as a store room, and 67th is expected to do the same. You’ve probably seen and barely noticed one or both of these structures. Unremarkable though they may appear, they have been immensely important to the mobility of people and goods through the years.

Towers, I miss ye.


Anonymous said...

I always wondered that that building on 51st was. It must get a fair amount of use since they've done quite a bit of work on it in recent years. They've added equipment, fencing, a walkway, painted the doors, etc.

Otto said...

Despite any other cantankerousness on my part, I do very much dig Richard Gill's rail contributions in this neck of the woods.

Elizabeth Fama said...

The interior, at least, of that building is not "unremarkable!" Way cool is more like it.

Dick, did you see the movie "RR" at Doc Films last night (May 23)? I wish I could have gone.

Richard Gill said...

Well, I went to DOC to see it, but they had received the wrong movie. I should have checked first; it's DOC, you know. This occurs less often than it used to, but it happens. The DOC guy said "RR" would be shown at a future date. Maybe.

Andrew Cone said...

Those old signal/switch control machines are truly beautiful, both visually and conceptually. From a design point of view, they represent conceptual grandeur: confidence that if a brilliant engineer thinks long and hard enough, he can come up with an integrated, coherent solution for an entire complex system.

I feel this quality is lacking in a lot of civil engineering. We have too many zoning ordinances and not enough Plans of Chicago.

If you want to see one of these boxes in action, go to 18th and Wentworth, and walk north on the dirt road, until you hit the tracks. There's a tower on your right. Knock on the door, and politely ask to see the machine inside.

The machine inside has controlled the tracks since 1903, and has only required minor maintenance since. It will be replaced by a computerized system in a year or so, which I'm sure will break more often.

Steven Lucy said...

I know it's popular to highlight Doc's mistakes (which, I agree, are frustratingly frequent), but in this case the filmmaker himself, who was to introduce the film, brought the wrong film (in a canister labeled "RR"). The error was only discovered when the cans were opened to prep the film. The same mistake would have happened at any professional theater.

Plus, for the next few months anyhow, you can replicate the RR experience by sitting on the Metra platforms and watching the CN trains roll by.

Keep an eye out for when the film will be shown, probably Autumn quarter.

Mike said...

While the retirement of the old interlocking machines is inevitable, the real shame is the centralization of critical control functions. In the effort to save money METRA leaves itself vulnerable to a single point of failure that can completely kill service along the entire line. It also impacts the quality of service by replacing eyes in the field with "eyes" in a remote office park. If the communications go down or if the work piles up trains and passengers will be the ones paying the price.

While the electro-mechanical interlocking machines are destined to be eventually replaced, there is nothing that says the operator can't play video games at the tower instead of the downtown office building.