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Railfan Extra Board - December 2010

Slowing Down Time at PD Tower

The practice of tower operators hooping orders to passing trains has largely disappeared from American railroading in the last 30 years. During the late evening hours of April 28, 2006, an operator decends the stairs of Long Island Rail Road's PD Tower in Patchogue, New York, ready to hoop up clearance cards to a passing eastbound train. The removal of the original armstrong lever machine in 1991 robbed the structure of its rigidity, earning it the nickname of "The Leaning Tower of Patchogue."

Slowing Down Time at Long Island's PD Tower

By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the Author

Slowing Down Time at PD TowerThe engineer snags the orders from the operator at PD during the tower's last days of operation on April 30, 2006. The shadow of a PRR-style position light signal falls on the nose of the brand new DE30, another juxtaposition of old and new on the LIRR.

The Long Island Rail Road connects its namesake with the thriving metropolis of New York, a job it has done regularly since 1834. Purchased by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1966, the nation's busiest commuter carrier has been the subject of a steady modernization program ever since. State of the art rolling stock and locomotives, new stations and high-level platforms, and replacement of old Pennsy-era position light signals are just some of the constant improvements made to the railroad over the last 40 years. Even as more of the old LIRR seemed to disappear, there were still some vestiges of railroading's simplest form of traffic control: Timetable and train order.

In order to modify instructions in the schedule in the days before radio and telephone communications, it was necessary for the dispatcher to contact outlying tower operators by telegraph. The tower operator would copy the order, then tie it to a loop of string. The string is then fixed into the train order hoop, and the operator places himself in a position that allows the crew to snag their orders without having to stop and delay their train. The practice of "hooping" orders to passing trains largely passed by mid-century with the widespread installation of Centralized Traffic Control and locomotive radios. No longer were written orders required when dispatchers could contact train crews directly. Remote towers were closed as dispatchers could control hundreds of miles of territory from a single panel. Because of the heavy amount of traffic on the Montauk Branch and the number of clearances that had to be issued in the course of normal operations, the practice of hooping orders at PD continued into the 21st century.

Built in 1912, "PD" tower protected a busy interlocking on the Montauk Branch and also a crossing with the Suffolk Traction Co., whose trolley line ran to Patchogue Dock, the reference for the call sign. While position light signals replaced semaphores, steam gave way to diesel, and private ownership gave way to public control, the ancient wooden tower remained, even retaining its original Saxby & Farmer lever machine until 1991. When it was removed, the tower began to slouch, earning its nickname "The Leaning Tower of Patchogue." Until its demise, PD was one of the only towers in America regularly hooping up orders to passing trains. Every train crew heading east of Patchogue received clearance cards from the operator, much as they had for the last 90 or so years.

Railfan Extra Board

I learned of the impending closure of this anachronism of railroading through online railfan message boards. Growing up in the suburbs north of New York, I didn't spend a lot of time on Long Island or know much about the railroad, though I was determined to make the trip to see this spectacle draw to a close. The official cutover date was listed as May 8, 2006, so I made the two-and-a-half hour trek out to Patchogue the weekend before. I was welcomed by a scene full of contrasts, from the modern high-level platform to the old wooden tower, from the new DE30 diesels and stainless steel bi-levels to the old PRR-style position light signals.

I spent two days at the end of April trying to properly document this rapidly fading scene. It was surreal watching something happen that I had only read about in old books and magazines. Time seemed to slow down as the operator emerged from the tower with two hoops in hand, descending the stairs to take his appointed place along the tracks. With clockwork precision, the engineer snagged his orders. The process was repeated for the conductor in the rear coach. It was fascinating to see basic 19th century railroading performed with 21st century equipment.

No matter how much time seemed to slow down at Patchogue, it did not stop. The tower was closed on May 8, and in its weakened state surrendered easily to demolition on August 23. With the absence of PD tower, it seems that the march of time has picked up the pace on the Long Island Rail Road.


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