A lot of railfans are not overly fond of the modern signals that Class 1 railroads have been installing in recent years.
They don’t like how these modern signals tend to look alike and how they are replacing signals seen as classic, such as Baltimore & Ohio color position light signals and the searchlight signals found on some railroads.
Some signals are even associated with a particular railroad, adding little touches that made them distinct from other signals. Signals of the B&O, Pennsylvania, Nickel Plate Road and Chesapeake & Ohio come to mind.
Shown are a set of modern signals on a cantilever signal bridge in Durand, Michigan. The train beneath it is Amtrak’s westbound Blue Water en route to Chicago.
The first strike against modern signals is that the basic structure is similar to that used on interstate highways. This signal belongs to Canadian National, but with its generic look it could be standing guard over anywhere on any class 1 railroad in North America.
The second strike against this signal is that it replaced a set of classic searchlight signals put up by the Grand Trunk Western decades ago.
It might be difficult to imagine today, but someday this signal might be seen as classic. It might also be that this signal will not always be here, too.
Signaling technology may advance to a point where railroads no longer need lineside signals. The signal indication will be relayed by satellite to the locomotive cab through an advanced positive train control system.
We can’t say when that might come about or how long this signal will remain in service.
In time, it might be that future generations of railfans who never saw a B&O color position light or searchlight signal will have the same fondness for this technology as many today have for signal technology rooted in the early to middle 20th century.
I happen to like this image even if the signal is not classic and feature LED lighting rather than lightbulbs. It captures a scene in railroading that is timeless by showing the fleeting relationship between a train and the signals telling the crew that it is safe to proceed.
And that, in essence, is the purpose of signals. It may be that railroads no longer distinguish themselves by adding small touches to the design of their signals.
But no matter the design, signals and trains are still made to go together.
Article and Photograph by Craig Sanders