By Steve Barry/photos by the author
The former Pennsylvania Railroad main line had many distinctive features, from it stone arch bridges to its many towers that controlled the line. One of those distinct features, the Pennsy’s position light signals, have been falling rapidly as Norfolk Southern converts the line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh to Positive Train Control. The signals were located every two miles or so, protecting many a train for decades.
Perhaps the most accessible set of Pennsy position lights (from a railfanning standpoint) was the stretch on the West Slope of the line over the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania. From Gallitzen down to Johnstown, many of the signals were visible from public locations. In May, the signals from Horseshoe Curve on the East Slope to MO at Cresson on the West Slope came down. As June approached, the very accessible signals between Lilly and Johnstown became railfan targets, as these would be the next to fall.
Just after sunrise, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train passes beneath the former Pennsylvania Railroad signals at Lilly, Pa., on June 4, 2019.
Lilly had two sets of signals, one each east and west of town. The eastern set was largely inaccessible, but the west set was easily seen and shootable with a telephoto lens. The town even put in a parking area and bench at the location (one of many railfan-friendly communities on the West Slope). With the railroad running largely northeast-southwest through here, these signals became an early-morning target for many fans.
The next community with accessible signals was Cassandra, with its famous railroad overlook. The set of signals west of the overlook could be shot with a long telephoto lens.
Perhaps no set of signals was as accessible as the one at Jamestown. Here, the signals were mounted directly to a road bridge, allowing one to shoot from directly behind the signal heads. Another signal bridge was visible east of the road bridge, but the heads faced the wrong way for photography.
An eastbound stack train rolls through the trio of former Pennsylvania Railroad position signals at Portage, Pa., on June 4, 2019.
Portage was the next town west, and was the only set of accessible signals not on an overhead bridge. Three signals mounted on posts guarded the main line and a branch to a coal mine.
A loaded coal train passes under the ex-Pennsylvania Railroad position signals at Summerhill, Pa., on June 4, 2019. The train entered the main line from the mine just east of Portage and is making a short westbound dash down the “wrong” main to South Fork where it will enter the yard.
Then there was Summerhill, the photography favorite. Located right in the middle of town and featuring signals facing both directions, fans could shoot eastbound trains from ground level and westbounds from the Main Street road bridge.
A westbound Norfolk Southern freight passes under the former Pennsylvania Railroad signals at Summerhill on June 3, 2019. The signals for eastbound trains are on tall masts so the signals can be seen over a road bridge.
It was the road bridge that gave the Summerhill signals their unique feature — the signals for eastbound trains were mounted on long masts so they would stick up above the Main Street bridge, allowing crews to see them farther away.
Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian departs the station in Johnstown heading west, passing under former Pennsylvania Railroad signals on June 3, 2019.
Finally, Johnstown has (as this is written) a set of signals just west of the Amtrak station, shootable from the west side of the Little Conemaugh River bridge with a short telephoto. From the hillside overlook, the normal-lens shot of the bridge is not bad, either.
Amtrak’s eastbound Pennsylvanian passes beneath the former Pennsylvania Railroad signals at Summerhill on June 4, 2019.
On June 9, all the above signals except Johnstown were decommissioned. NS wasted no time in removing them — all came down on June 10. With NS also working eastward from Pittsburgh in replacing signals, the classic PRR lights are now restricted to a very narrow segment of track from Johnstown westward.
There were many things that made the Pennsy the Pennsy. Perhaps the most common reminder in the 21st century were the position light signals. And now, even these are vanishing into the history books.