Rods and Rails

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, June 19, 2023

Once, both were essentially ubiquitous in North American railroading.  More often than not, the rails were alone, but at virtually any point on multiple-track mainlines where there was a need for trains to change tracks, as well as entrances to yards, you’d find both together.

When I was a young/budding railfan, and had begun to read TRAINS magazine on a monthly basis, there was a fairly steep learning curve vis-à-vis what all the lineside infrastructure both was and what it was called.  For a variety of reasons, my early trackside experiences typically didn’t involve towers and interlockings, so it was a while before the hardware that enabled them to carry out their assigned functions of directing trains onto the proper track within their jurisdictions came into view. 

I did live near, and visit on numerous occasions, a major passenger facility, Cincinnati Union Terminal, but its turnouts were electrically controlled, and thus, no rods were present.  I probably spent more time at the Winton Place passenger station, which was on the double-track main of the B&O, but no interlockings were in view there. The first time I really became aware of this apparatus “in the field” that I can recall is a Cincinnati-Cleveland trip in 1961 on the New York Central’s “State Special”.

It was my first train trip on my own, and I had lots of opportunities to observe things on the railroad during its essentially all-day (morning to late afternoon) passage from southwest to northeast Ohio.  I can recall passing Galion yard, and noted all the rods in the vicinity, and now had an idea of what they were there for.

Eventually, as I became more active in railroad photography, I found that “armstrong” interlockings, and their associated manually-operated levers, were on the way out.  As CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) became more prevalent, electricity provided the energy for moving turnouts, and in the process, often eliminated interlocking towers, as well.

In addition to the photogenic ironwork in their vicinity, a good part of the allure of towers was the presence of employees in them that could provide information on train movements, if inclined to do so.  Fortunately, on the B&O mainline between Martinsburg, West Virginia and Hancock (the tower was actually across the river in West Virginia) there were a string of four interlocking facilities that continued to have operators essentially into the early part of the twenty-first century. 

Thus, on the way back from an overnight trip to Grafton, West Virginia, on the B&O’s fabled “West End” of the Cumberland Division, we stopped in at “HO” (not a model railroad reference!) tower at Hancock, near sunset on October 29, 1989.  Yes, an eastbound was coming, in the form of the hotshot intermodal train 136.

I will have to say that occasionally the rods did constrain where you could stand in their vicinity, but in this case, with the almost-evening light falling of both the rails and rods, it quickly became apparent what the forthcoming photo should include. 

As you can see, 136 was hustling, with the waning light falling on the top of both parallel lengths of steel essentially bracketing the train.  There would be other visits to HO before it, too vanished, but the lighting this time was special.

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