RIP Hallett Tower

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Notch 8
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RIP Hallett Tower

Post by Notch 8 » Fri Sep 06, 2019 8:51 pm

Hallett Tower, September 6, 2019 the last operating railroad tower in the Toledo area closed after 1st trick shift was over..

When Larry Bohland hired on 40 years ago as a tower operator for what was then known as the Michigan Interstate Railroad, co-workers predicted he’d retire from somewhere else.

“It’s a dying position. You’re not going to be here when you’re done,” Mr. Bohland says he was told.

But when Friday afternoon rolls around and Mr. Bohland closes Hallett Tower’s door for the final time, not only will the 61-year-old Oregon resident have made it to retirement, he also will become the last railroad tower man in Toledo — and one of the last in Ohio.

Several isolated railroad drawbridges in the state maintain direct authority over the tracks that cross them, but the junction that sprawls across Matzinger Road in North Toledo had been the last of its kind in Ohio — and one of just a few left in North America — where a local operator was in charge rather than a train dispatcher in a remote office.

Control of most of the tracks at Hallett was handed off to CSX train dispatchers in Jacksonville, Fla., in April. But Hallett Tower’s operators — a term harkening back to telegraph-based communication on the railroads — have remained on the job since then to dispatch the rest of the Ann Arbor Railroad between Toledo and its namesake Michigan city.

That will change Friday, when dispatching functions are to be transferred to an office in Wichita, Kan., belonging to the Watco Companies, which bought the Ann Arbor in 2013.

John Vance, the Ann Arbor station’s general manager, said four jobs overall are affected. Besides Mr. Bohland, the three other tower men at Hallett all were offered the opportunity to transfer to Wichita or other Watco facilities, but opted for severance payments over moving, Mr. Vance said.

Towers once dotted the railroad landscape across North America, when such structures were built not only to control track switches, junctions, and signals, but to issue written orders that granted trains and maintenance personnel authority to occupy main tracks and imposed restrictions, where needed, on that authority.

“We used to hang orders for every northbound and southbound train on [what is now] CSX, and on the Ann Arbor we gave northbound trains orders while southbounds gave us their consists” — lists of their trains’ cars that were then given to yardmasters in nearby Ottawa Yard, Mr. Bohland recalled Wednesday.

But starting in the mid-20th century, various forms of automation and modern communication nibbled, then gnawed away at the towers’ ranks — particularly a system known commonly as Centralized Traffic Control that allowed track switches and signals to be commanded remotely by dispatchers, eliminating the middlemen in the towers.

Of eight tower stations still active in Toledo in 1994 — not counting three drawbridges — seven were at locations where one railroad crossed another. Over the ensuing years, the others all fell to automation, with CSX closing its last three in the Walbridge area in 2005 as part of a switch-and-signal modernization project.

Hallett survived, Mr. Vance said, because neither the Ann Arbor, which owned it, nor CSX, which paid two-thirds of its operating costs under a generations-old operating agreement, had a significant incentive to replace it.

Since 1985, when the Michigan Interstate sold the south end of its railroad between the Ann Arbor area and Toledo to a new company that reinstated the Ann Arbor name, Hallett’s operator also served as the railroad’s dispatcher — a role needed no matter how the junction at Hallett was controlled.

But once it bought the railroad, Kansas-based Watco could shift the dispatching function out of town, and that combined with a nationwide wave of railroad signal modernization to support installation of a federally mandated safety system called Positive Train Control ultimately spelled Hallett’s doom.

Early this year, CSX replaced signals and other controls at most of the junction to enable all but the crossing of a single CSX track with the Ann Arbor’s tracks to be controlled from the CSX dispatching center in Jacksonville, Fla. The rest of the junction became fully automated.

After that change occurred in mid-April, Hallett’s operators continued to work as the Ann Arbor’s dispatchers, but preparations began to shift that role to Wichita.

Mr. Vance said the tower building, built in the early 1900s, will remain standing at least for the time being, providing storage for the Ann Arbor’s signal department, he said, although the company is open to the idea of donating all or part of it to a museum.

Mr. Vance said that while the closing makes sense for both safety and efficiency, he expects to “shed a couple of tears Friday afternoon” when Hallett formally closes.

“It’s like seeing an old friend retire,” said the railroad manager, who earlier in his railroad career was an engineer on trains that passed through Hallett. “Just seeing the tower shut down after all these years, it’s kind of sad.”

Written by David Patch 9/4/19 Toledo Blade and photo's by me.
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