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A 92-year-old rail switching tower is still in use in Mitchell, though authorities say it is outdated and inefficient in moving traffic through an intersection of five railroads.
Modernizing the Lenox Tower would lend a competitive advantage to the region’s transportation companies and would decrease wait time for both road and rail traffic by 43 hours a week, according to the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
But funding is uncertain — state funding is not available “at this point,” a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Transportation said, though a $1.8 million-dollar high-speed rail project is ongoing.
The Union Pacific spokesperson says a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant is pending. The grants are reserved for projects in metropolitan areas where upgrades would create job growth and economic activity.”
Lenox Tower is a two-story brick building constructed in 1924. It sits alongside a Union Pacific railroad six miles northeast of Granite City and houses a device called an interlocking machine. The machine is used to direct train traffic and prevent collisions.
Lenox is staffed at all times by at least one of less than six employees, Union Pacific spokesperson Calli Hite said. The interlocking machine, which is as old as the building, is made of 80 pistol-grip levers used to control the rails, while a model board hanging from the ceiling shows each switch location on the railroad tracks.
Even at more than 90 years old, the system still works like it always has. It’s safe, but inefficient, Hite said. Freight trains bottleneck at the intersection because they have to slow down to speeds between 5 to 30 miles per hour, while passenger trains go through at 40 to 60 miles per hour.
If the station were modernized, freight trains could pass through at 40 to 60 miles per hour and Amtrak trains could go through at up to 79 miles per hour. An average of 46 trains pass through the station daily. An increase in train speeds would also reduce wait times at crossings for the Granite City community, according to the Freightway.
Improvements could cost $12 to $15 million, but would attract more freight business to the region by optimizing rail traffic, says Marie Lamie, executive director of the Freightway, a public-private council aimed at marketing and improving transportation in the St. Louis region. The Freightway identified the system modernization as one of its priorities in a tentative draft of projects.
Though federal and state funding is uncertain as of yet, the Lenox Tower represents an area where private and public sectors could come together in funding, Lamie said.
“Part of our role is in trying to reinvest in freight networks through innovating and creative things as far as funding,” Lamie said, making a private-public partnership a possibility for moving forward with the project.
Losing a landmark
Updating the facility could mean demolishing the historic building, said Brad Koldehoff, chief archaeologist for IDOT. The tower is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and so is afforded certain historic protections through the Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
If the building is torn down, dispatching controls would be relocated to United Pacific Railroad’s central location in Omaha.
Koldehoff said his office of three has developed a preservation plan in case the tower needs to be torn down.
“The first thing we try to do is avoid it being demolished, if we can,” Koldehoff said. “But if this project does go forward, if it is funded, we would record the building and preserve the antiquated pieces.”
Those pieces include the switching machinery and model board, which would be made available to museums or a “living history” train site.
Interlocking towers like the Lenox Tower were demolished or abandoned, according to a report by WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering and design firm.
The other two towers in the Metro East are the Kansas City Southern Willows Tower in East St. Louis and the CSX Transport’s HN Cabin in Washington Park. Most interlocking towers in Illinois were closed from the 1970s through the 1990s.
In April 1995, Trains Magazine compiled a list of 33 active interlocking towers, according to the report. Since then, about a third of those towers have been closed or demolished.
Reach Kelsey Landis at 208-6460 x 1396 or on Twitter @kelseylandis.
This article first appeared on thetelegraph.com
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