Article From the Summer 2002 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


July 25, 2002 marked the 75th anniversary of the first use of Centralized Traffic Control. Developed right here in Rochester by General Railway Signal Company, this first application was on New York Central Lines’ Toledo-Thurston, Ohio line, and covered the 40+ miles from Toledo to Berwick, Ohio. Since that auspicious day, C.T.C. has spread to almost universal application on mainline railroads throughout the world.

In the early days of railroading, red-painted balls were hoisted as stop signals and in some locations flagmen were required to walk ahead of trains to alert bystanders lest they get run over. As trains got faster and more frequent, the need for better rules and systems for controlling trains led to rudimentary signals. A host of companies manufactured a hodgepodge of apparatus to varying degrees of reliability and utility. By the turn of the twentieth century, electricity had entered this arena, and signal lights, electric switch actuating machines, hump yards, grade crossing protection, and many other aspects of the industry began to move from the manual world to that of engineering and technology.

Rochester’s General Railway Signal Company was formed by combining several smaller firms, and it soon moved to a leadership position in the railroad supply industry. Providing a vast array of products for control, communication and safety, the company was clearly in a position to combine its capabilities in a
     An important part of CTC was the remotely actuated electric switch
     machine. This 1925 GRS ad illustrates the alternative.

bold step toward automating control of trains. In fact, by 1927 GRS was routinely installing automated interlocking systems to control important junctions, and had many push-button control towers to their credit at large train stations. If there was anything holding back the extension of these elements to the control of a section or entire division of a railroad, it was probably the conservative railroads more than the lack of technology. Steeped in tradition and having succeeded through uniform adherence to standard methods, the rails approached new ideas cautiously and accepted them only after careful testing.

Well, the test in 1927 worked, and today CTC continues to be a success, keeping trains rolling safely and efficiently. What a system: The CSX mainline that goes right past the front door of the old GRS building on West Avenue in Rochester is controlled by people in Jacksonville, Florida.

(author unknown)

In 1963, your editor wrote to the New York Central for information about Centralized Traffic Control as part of a public speaking course assignment in college. Soon, an envelope with no return address arrived containing a typed description of a typical run from Cleveland to Buffalo. The unsigned document gives us a look at the benefits of C.T.C. forty years ago, and although a lot has changed over time the description is probably just as valid for today’s CSX operations.

At Cleveland Union Terminal, we board engine 4020 which is a 2250 horsepower diesel unit coupled to another 2000 horsepower unit on train 222, carrying mail, express and passenger cars.

After switching is completed and the train is fully assembled, an air test is made to see that the brakes on each car apply and release properly. At ten minutes before noon, two short whistle signals sound in the cab advising the engineman to proceed. This whistle signal was initiated by a member of the crew using the communicating signal line.

Our train moves at 15 miles per hour through the interlocking and speed is increased to 70 after passing a wayside signal displaying color lights green over staggered red, indicating the track is clear. Between Cleveland Union Terminal and Buffalo, there are two tracks, the southerly track being number 2 and assigned to trains moving in an eastward direction.

The next stop is at Collinwood fueling station where the Toledo Division engineman who handled the train from Toledo, Ohio gets off and another engineman takes his place to continue through to Buffalo.

    Forty years ago a fleet of passenger trains polished New York Central
     rails, powered by "lightning striped" E units like these.

Jim Dierks photo

Water is taken on for the steam heating boilers and the engineman again makes a test of the air brakes to see that they apply and release properly. The train then departs from the fueling station, moving eastward on No. 2 track. After reaching a speed of about 30 mph a running test is made of the air brakes to see that they function properly.

After passing the east end of Collinwood yard we enter Traffic Control territory (commonly known as CTC). The first signal encountered indicates clear. This is at Controlled Point "BR" and the signal is actuated by the train dispatcher at Erie, Pennsylvania moving a lever on his control machine. Speed of our train is increased to 80 mph, which is normal speed permitted, and shortly we overtake a train also moving eastward, on No. 1 track, at a speed of about 70 mph. This train consists of 50 cars of Flexi-vans, two on each car, plus ten multi-level automobile-carrying cars. Some of these cars have three tiers of new automobiles. This train is known as SV-2, for Super Van 2.

As we approach Controlled Point "SW" we observe a wayside signal displaying a yellow light over a staggered red light which instructs the engineman to at once reduce the train speed to 30 mph and approach the next signal ahead prepared to stop. At Controlled Point "SW" the controlled signal indicates red over red vertical and the train is brought to a stop west of this signal.

While stopped at this point the train SV-2 that we had overtaken on No. 1 track now overtakes us and switches from No. 1 track to No. 2 track to move ahead of us and to get out of the way of train 35, moving west on No. 1 track. Train 35 is "The Iroquois", a New York City to Chicago coach train, and it streaks past us at 12:24 p.m.

We stop at Painesville and after working mail and express and taking on passengers, we proceed east still on No. 2 track. We then stop at Geneva and while at this station a westward Flexi-van train passes us at 70 mph on No. 1 track.

Moving eastward on No. 2 track and approaching Controlled Point "W", we encounter a yellow sign to the right of and adjacent to the track, on which sign appears the black numerals "60", informing the engineman that approximately 7,000 feet from that point would be a Slow Speed Board at which point the speed of the train should not be exceeding 60 mph. The engineman takes action to reduce the speed of the train and when we approach the Slow Speed Board (a diamond shaped sign with yellow background and black letter "S") the speedometer indicates the train is moving at 60 mph. This is the maximum speed permitted until we reach a Resume Speed Board. We soon spot a small crew of track workers standing well clear of our train; their presence explains our slow order.

After leaving the station at Ashtabula, Ohio our train continues at 60 mph until we approach Controlled Point "WJ" where we encounter a square board with a green background on which appears a white letter ""R" indicating the end of the restricted speed area. After our entire train has passed this board, the speed is increased to 80 mph. We see a headlight in the distance and soon westbound mail and express train 3 passes us, moving at about 80 mph.

The next station stop is at Conneaut, Ohio and after leaving that station we approach a wayside signal two miles west of Controlled Point "SQ". This signal indicates a yellow light over a flashing green light which instructs the engineman to reduce the speed of the train to 60 mph and approach Controlled Point "SQ" not exceeding 50 mph. Soon, as we approach Controlled Point "SQ", the signal there displays a red light over flashing green, instructing the engineman to move at not exceeding 50 mph through the crossover track, diverting the train from No. 2 track to No. 1 track. After the entire train is through the crossover, the speed is again increased to 80 mph. Proceeding eastward, we meet freight train LS-3, heading west on No. 2 track which we just vacated. LS-3 is carrying cars for western U.S. lines connecting at Zearing, Illinois.

In combinations of red, yellow and green lights, these signals
require engineers to approach the next signal at Limited Speed.

NORAC Signal Aspects, 4/1/1993                                                 

As we approach the next Controlled Point, "GJ", we again receive signals that require reduction in speed to permit us to move from No. 1 track back to No. 2, (continued on page 3) to properly platform our train at Erie, Pennsylvania. After leaving Erie, we meet another westward train on No. 1 track, BF-1. This freight train’s five diesel units are hauling cars for Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Now in New York State, we make stops at Westfield and Dunkirk, and do not meet any other trains. We arrive in Buffalo on time at 4:10 p.m.

All of the signals and switches at Controlled Points that we encountered during our trip were operated by the train dispatcher located at Erie. During the entire trip, at each signal that did not display a "clear" indication or which caused speed of the train to be reduced, the engineman moved a lever to his right in the cab as we approached the signal and received a whistle in the cab. Had he failed to take this action, the air brakes would have been automatically applied. This is known as Automatic Train Stop. It makes it impossible for the train to pass a restricting speed signal if anything were to happen to the engineman or if he was not alert.

Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) is known as Train Control System (TCS) on the New York Central System. In territories where this form of operation is in effect, as it is between Elkhart, Indiana and Syracuse, New York, trains may proceed in either direction on either track, and movements are governed by signal indication. When a signal is displayed for an eastward movement at a Controlled Point, no signal can be cleared for a westward movement between this Controlled Point and the next Controlled Point ahead. The train dispatcher actuates the signals at Controlled Points by operating a switch or button on his control machine in the office of the train dispatcher.

A track diagram on the control panel in front of the dispatcher has a small opal light at each signal location including the automatic block signals between all of the Controlled Points. These lights are displayed as the train passes each signal, which are placed approximately two miles apart, and they remain lighted until the entire train has passed the signal. In this manner the train dispatcher is aware of the movements of all trains at all times. The position of switches at Controlled Points is indicated on the control panel showing whether such switch is in normal or reversed position.

By use of the Traffic Control System, it was possible to reduce the number of tracks on the New York Central System mainline from four to two, with no assigned direction to either track. Also eliminated were several manned interlocking and signal stations. In many of the places where tracks were removed, the resulting space along the rail line furnished excellent driveway for off-track work equipment.


We were never able to find out who took the time to help an interested college student by typing out the above narrative. However, in 1994, an obituary in a railfan magazine marked the passing of Richard J. Cook. Cook was an accomplished rail photographer and had authored six books and many magazine articles. The obit noted that he had a career on the New York Central as an operator at Berea tower (just west of Cleveland where this article’s train trip begins), and eventually worked in public relations for the International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers labor union. It could be that this description came from Richard Cook, a tower operator with a flair for writing and an interest in dealing with the public. We’ll never know for sure.