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October 06, 2018

"Getting There" - The SoNo Switchtower

Do you ever wonder how trains move on a busy line like the New Haven division of Metro-North?  How they switch from track to track, make their scheduled stops and try to stay on schedule?

Today, it’s all controlled by computer-assisted dispatchers working near Grand Central Terminal, handling 700 trains per day.  But until the 1980’s, the dispatchers were decentralized, working in one-man “towers” all along the line.

Each tower handled a section of track, manually throwing massive switches to send trains on their appointed routes following a master schedule.  Manned 24 / 7,  a tower in Woodlawn would hand off trains to a tower in Mt Vernon, then to New Rochelle, Rye, Greenwich, Cos Cob, Stamford and South Norwalk.



Bob Hughes worked in the SoNo Switch Tower for eight years, dispatching hundreds of passenger and freight trains coming up and down the mainline, many continuing onto the Danbury branch.  Built in the 1880’s, the tower featured a 68 lever “Armstrong” machine, so named because it was all manual and required strong arms to move the manual switches using hundreds of yards of connected piping.

For his work Hughes was paid $2.65 an hour with a two cent per hour bump for operating the circuit panel for the 11,000 volt overhead catenary.

The tower also was equipped with a “model board”, showing the exact location of each train.  As a train passed the neighboring tower (Stamford or Bridgeport), the dispatcher would call Bob on a speaker phone to alert him to the train entering his territory.

A call like “BG-1 next on 1” would warn Bob to watch his model board and prepare for that train’s arrival and possible switching to another track.  As it passed, Bob would note the locomotive number and time on a master train log, later sent to headquarters in New Haven, and then warn the next tower down the line what was coming their way.

Bob was also in communications with the nearby Walk Bridge tender who could open and close the bridge on demand as barges and sailboats requested. “In those days the bridge opened and closed without problem,” says Hughes.  “Of course, it was 50 years younger then.”

In addition to the busy passenger trains on the then-New Haven & Hartford RR, as many as eight freight trains per day would pass his tower.  “We tried not to slow up the freights to avoid brakes locking and similar problems,” he says.

It wasn’t until Penn Central took over the New Haven in 1969 that the trains got radios to communicate with the towers.  Before then, engineers who were stopped at a red signal would clamber down from their cab and use a track-side telephone to inquire about why they were being held up.  Hughes says the calls were “strictly business, no horsing around”.

In 1984 the SoNo Switch Tower was decommissioned along with most of its sister towers as switching was computerized and controlled out of GCT.  But the tower still lives on today as a museum.

Operated by the Western CT Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the museum is open 12 noon to 5 pm on weekends through October when you’ll often find Hughes demonstrating the old switching gear to appreciative onlookers.

For more information:  http://thetracksidephotographer.com/2018/04/26/best-job-in-the-world/ 


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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