Railroad History: Centralized Traffic Control

Steven Polunsky shares this interesting discussion of railroad technology from the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph, April 23, 2015:

Before the 1940s, making sure two trains were not on a collision course on a line of track took the work of a lot of people. There were telegrams sent, people were stationed up and down the tracks and conductors had to get off at every stop to ensure all was clear ahead for changing tracks.

Then came the invention of the Centralized Traffic Control panel, which allowed one person to control the tracks for hundreds of miles. The Cotton Belt Railroad made the leap with other railroads into the future and by 1957 had a fully installed CTC system.

“It was akin to going from pen and paper to digital. That is how big of a leap this was for the railroad,” Cotton Belt Depot Museum President Shane Murphy said.

Murphy said the new electronics worked when a train’s wheels contacted an electrical track circuit and sent information back to the unit, which allowed the operator to know where trains were on the hundreds of miles of track.

“By flipping levers and pushing buttons on the panel, the dispatcher opens and closes railroad switches, shunts slow trains on to sidings and expedites the meeting of trains running in opposite directions on the same track. With centralized traffic control, a single-track railroad is able to handle up to 80 percent more traffic with greater speed, efficiency and safety,” he said.

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