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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Piece of UP history to close in June

Written by 
February 14, 2001

The Union Pacific is closing the Ridgely Tower in Springfield, Ill., one of the last manually operated rail switching towers in Illinois, The State Journal-Register reports. The tower, south of Sangamon Avenue and west of 16th Street, controls rail traffic along the Union Pacific/Amtrak line between St. Louis and Chicago and the Springfield to Peoria line of the Illinois and Midland Railroad. One of five operators sits in the tower around-the-clock to control rail traffic using a series of levers.

"We will be able to move the Ridgely Tower functions to the Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha by the end of June," said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. "The automation of the tower is part of our annual improvement projects and takes advantage of newer technology that enhances operations and safety."

The tower has been in its current location since the early 20th century. It was rebuilt in 1930 by the then-owner, the B&O Railroad Co., and hasn't changed much since.

The five people who still work at Ridgely -- Bob Phillips, Frances Jumper, Dave Gutierrez, Damon Vinson and Dewayne Clinton -- are members of the Telecommunications Union. The union is expected to offer them the chance to take other jobs, but probably not in Springfield.

The tower has not been well maintained over the years because the railroad companies that have owned it kept thinking it would close soon and they didn't want to spend money on upkeep.

Control operators are not allowed to watch TV because it would distract them from the train traffic, but there is a microwave oven, a telephone and a good supply of bottled water. Visitors are not allowed. The operator in the tower is in radio contact with train engineers and monitors rail traffic via computer. The four-foot-long iron switches -- there were more than 30 of them at one time -- are pulled in a sequence according to where the rail traffic needs to go. After the tower closes, that will be done by computer from Omaha, as is the case already on much of the UP rail line.

The closing of Ridgely Tower does not come as a surprise. Manually operated towers have gradually been phased out. Thirty years ago, Springfield had five control towers that were operated by people. After June, it will have none.

"Considering the advancements in technology over the years," said Davis, "these types of towers use antiquated technology, and replacement parts are not readily available."

What will become of the Ridgely Tower once its operations are closed in June is unknown. But there is interest in preserving it as a historic artifact.

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