Nov 162014

Getting the precious home was one thing. Getting it to work was the next. I wanted to see these things light up. While the internet is one of my favorite things, trying find the right words to search when stepping into a completely new subject can be tricky. This one fortunately came together rather quickly. These signals are called (wait for it…) “Colored Light Signals“. More, mine are “R2” 3 Light Colored Light Signals. Some places throw a ‘vertical’ in the title somewhere too. The details start to fall off quickly and get somewhat vague. While there are many people who collect train items, or “Railroadiana” as I have just learned, not many people write about it, or more to the point, restoring it. Don’t get me wrong, I found a few sites, but the real juicy details run a little thin. I decided that it was time to pull out the multimeter and figure out the wiring myself.

I got the first signal flipped around so I could get at it’s innards. The CSX guy had taken the lock off of this unit when I was talking to him, so there were no issues getting into it. When I opened it up, I found years, and years of bugs, dirt, and all sorts of other miscellaneous debris that had accumulated. They have a seal that appears to be a heavy cotton weave that was dipped in perhaps oil, or tar. But these seals have dried out long ago and started to fall apart, giving all sorts of creatures free access to come and go as they please. Lady bugs seem to be especially popular. I spent a few minuted with a brush and a vacuum getting it cleaned out.

I am impressed with how tough they built these things to be. All the wiring is thick and heavy. All connections are double bolted to assure nothing would come apart. In the information I found, it looks like these run on 12 volts, but it’s a little odd, the bulbs are spec’d at 10v. There were only 4 wires and 3 lights, so this was going to be somewhat easy. For the un-electronically minded, in order to light a bulb, you need to make a circuit that spans from the voltage source, to what we call ground. If there is a break anywhere along the way, the electricity can not flow from point a to z. If you test a system like this, and all the bulbs are in good condition, it would seem as if all these wires were connected. And technically, they are. This is because a the light bulb filament is nothing more than a coiled wire with high resistance. The resistance causes this wire to heat up and glow. In order to sort out which wires go to which lights, and which one is ground, we need to break the circuit. The easy solution here is to remove the lightbulbs. Once the bulbs were out, I was able to identify the red, yellow, and green lights. The green is actually almost blue. I labeled, the wires with colored electrical tape for easy identification at a later point.

It was time to test the signal. I have a fairly intense 12 volt power supply I picked up from the Hamfest last year. I put the bulbs back into their sockets. Being that ground is always ground, I alligator clipped ground to the power supply. Then I was able to go through each bulb. These signals have been through a lot of abuse as of late. They were removed from God knows where and tossed on some sort of vehicle. There were clearly dumped where we found them. Given the scars, and bends in the metal, they have been bashed a few times. All 3 bulbs lit without issue. Impressive. While I was in and amongst the lenses, I figured that they probably had not been washed… ever. I removed the lens retainer rims and pulled out each of the 8.5 inch lenses. I gave them a good scrub in some hot soapy water as the gunk that they were covered in just would not come off. After a bit of work, they started to sparkle. There was a residual black substance on the lenses that looked like spray paint overspray. I went after this with some acetone which took it right off.

I then worked on the shrouds. The shrouds were seriously banged up. I unscrewed these from the main body. Sadly some of the screws heads were snapped off in the rough handling. I still need to sort out how to back those out. But the rest were removed and replaced. The old ones were getting old and quite rusty. I was able to sort out the screw type with the sweet little screw board they have at our local ACE. They are 10-32 in case you are looking for sizes (or placed here in case I forget). Once they were off, I used a flat headed hammer and started the somewhat lengthy process of banging these things back into shape. After a while, these things started to look quite proper. I screwed them back onto the signal and lit the whole thing up. Alive… IT’S ALIVE!!! Muahh ahh ahhhh.

Getting into the second signal was not as easy. Being that this was a ‘late offering’, it came intact and with a lock. It was clear that this lock meant business, and it was not going to be bypassed with a simple wire cutter. More, I did not want to break the thing as it was pretty cool. It was time to dust off my lock picks and see if I could get in. The lock was pretty rusty, so I drenched it with WD-40 and let it sit for a while. After some time, I gave it a go. It became clear somewhat quickly that this needed a lot of tension. There were wafers on both top and bottom which was a little challenging as I had to off set the tension so I could get at both sides. Once I figured that out, I got the keyway to turn in no time. The keyway might have turned, but the shackle did not budge. Not even a little. This was somewhat puzzling. If the keyway turned, that thing should have popped. I started reading up on these locks. If it were a newer lock this would have been a feature of the lock, it would have gone into a failure mode if opened incorrectly, but this was not the case. The 3 digit code is a manufacturer code which states when the lock was made.. This lock was made in November of 1990. I started to really look at the whole lock. One thing that struck me is how much paint was on it. It looks like the signs would get an occasional coating of paint. The coating is not handled with care, nor precision, rather it is just sort of slathered on and whatever gets hit, gets hit, and it just gets caked on. I started wondering if the lock had gotten paint inside of the shackle casing. Feeling a little silly, and knowing that there was no way that I would be able to hurt the signal, nor the lock, I re-picked the lock. Once I got it to turn, I placed my feet on both sides of the signal and gave the lock a pretty good yank. POP. It came right open. So paint was the culprit here.

Once inside of this one, again I found years of critter collection. This signal had something a little different inside. The bulb behind the red lens had been replaced with a 12 volt LED module. It is like everything else, heavy duty, and all metal. Quickly getting the wiring sorted out again, I proceeded to testing. Again all 3 lit up without issue. Awesome. Next up is to pound out the shrouds for this unit but I was out of time.

If you are interested in historical insider train reference materials, I found this great page of all sorts of great books and documents.

 Posted by at 3:56 am
Nov 132014

For the past few weeks a pile has been growing near a railroad crossing I pass each day. The pile was made up of the large poles and signal lights used for signaling trains, as well as several small switching shacks where they would house the railway electronics. My son has asked if we could go grab some of the stuff out there. While secretly wishing I could pilfer the pile too, yet trying to be a good dad, I explained that you can’t just go in and take someone else’s stuff, even if it is sitting on the side of the road.

Last week, I saw a CSX truck sitting there. Having nothing to loose, I pulled over and talked to the guy. I told him of my conversation with my son, and asked how we might get a hold of a signal like this. He said “Come get it”. He went on to explain that this stuff was being collected for scrap and it was about to be hauled off. A side step for a second… I do get it, they just need the stuff removed, they have a job to do, but for me, there is so much cool history here, and this is stuff that would not have a hard time finding a home. Seems like a waste. He gave me his card and told us to call him in case anyone gave us a hard time. That was very cool, and something he did not have to do. I thanked him probably more times than I needed to, but this was going to be fun. I got home that night and told my son what we would be doing the following day. He freaked.

Sorry about the piss poor picture.

I loaded up a bag full of all the tools I thought we might need and we headed out to the tracks. The pile was a scary unruly bunch of metal. It looked like they had just dumped the stuff off the back of the truck. There was no order to it, so we needed to be quite cautious. Most of the signals were face down and under a lot of weight (more than I wanted to deal with). There was one that was suspended from a pole which was within reach. The pole was also not moving anywhere, so it was a good match. It was a puzzle as to how I was going to get the signal off the pole. The top was easy as it had cracked off during the move, but the bottom was well attached. The attached area looks to be made out of cast iron. It was covered in rust, years of elements, and layers and layers of paint. I hit the area lightly with a hammer. The paint cracked and fell off fairly easily. I then hit the whole area with a healthy spray of WD-40. I let this sit for a while. I came back to with a wrench which I tried to fit it on the bolt. My wrench (which I though would be big enough) was far too small. The whole thing was confifured around this massive bolt, so it needed to come out. I did not have the time to run and buy a wrench, nor did I want to put out a bunch of money for rare use situations.

I left it alone for a while and started to look at the rest of the items that were there. My son was having a blast looking at stuff. He found a whole set of wiring schematics for the whole area. There were copies of schematics from as early as 1974 in there. It looks like every time they made a change, they added newer and newer pages. I then started looking at some of the devices in the little switching buildings. There were banks and banks of massive relay units. These rooms were completely detached from the world, but it was still a little unnerving. There were metal contacts everywhere. One whole wall was filled with bus bars and connections that were totally uncovered. It seemed somewhat dangerous. I have now learned, and was somewhat surprised to find out that while yes, you could theoretically get a poke from these devices (if it were powered), this stuff is actually low voltage driven. I guess that the thick wires used everywhere was used to keep resistances lower. While I regret not loading up my car, I did not want to be a hog and take more than my share. So, I left with only a few of the devices. Knowing now that they took the buildings away and dumped the contents makes me a bit sad. People just do not make things like this any longer. The relay units are built out of rugged thick glass and heavy spools of copper. It is all held together with massive screws and nuts. It was designed for many lifetimes of use.

I went back to my main target. The signal. The WD-40 had had time to soak in. I decided that I would try to break the nuts free with my hammer. I started hitting the nut with a fairly severe angle. I wanted to glance off the thing, not bash it to a pulp. After a few hits, it started to move. I kept at it. Once it had turned a full rotation, I tried to twist it by hand (gloved hand to be clear). It was hard going but it turned. I got the second nut started the same way. I kept moving them along by hand until they would freeze up at which point I would remind them about the hammer. eventually both nuts were off. I went around to the front and gave the bolt a good whack. I watched the whole thing shift a little. Looking at the bolt closer, it was clearly disconnected, so I tried to give the signal a pull. It came willingly. It was at that moment that I learned exactly how heavy the thing was.

While yes, I had slayed the beast. But getting it into the car was another whole issue. When you see these signs up on their posts where they belong, they do not look to be very large. But they are very large. This thing is roughly 4 feet tall. I believe, given it’s weight, that the whole light housing to be made out of cast iron. It was too heavy for my son to help with so I sort of deadmanned it into the back end of the Prius. This is a sad point as I had to set it down at one point and it scratched the bleep out of the back of my car. Not the sort of thing you can hit undo and fix. We got everything home and when I pulled out the signal, it was at this point that I realized that the top shroud was missing.

I went back the following morning to find that all the little buildings were gone. There was a Cat bulldozer there scooping up signal poles and everything else up onto a trailer to be hauled away. I found the guy in charge and tried to explain that I left my shroud. It was very loud and difficult to hear. He replied… “You want a signal? Well you can’t have them all because we want one too.” I tried again to explain what I was after pointing to the ground where the bulldozer was rolling over some rather flat versions of shrouds. He said again… “If yer wantin’ a signal, you gotta get it now because he’s almost done”. About midway through trying again to explain what I was after, it dawned on me that wait a minute… he said I could take another signal. The Cat driver had liberated a few more signals by removing several of the poles that were on top of them. I shook my head yes, I wanted one. I told the cat guy to put one over to the side. I had left the WD-40 at home, but the hammer was still in the car. I worked as fast as I could to get the nuts off.  I struggled the thing over to my car. The man must have put together what I was originally asking for as he later handed me a stack of shrouds.

Feeling quite good, I was about to leave. The bulldozer pulled on a pole on which were 2 single light signals. They split and fell to the ground. As he was putting the pole on the trailer, I asked if I could grab the lights. They said yes. I grabbed them and took them back to the car. It struck me again how heavy this stuff was. These were not large pieces. Probably smaller than a soccer ball. But they were amazingly heavy. One was pretty rusted and in fairly bad shape. The other still held it’s lens and while dirty, seemed to be okay. I am glad I asked when I did. It was a great find and a heck of a lot of fun exploring.

 Posted by at 9:24 pm