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A day at Tower 17, Rosenberg TX

A Day at Tower 17: Rosenberg, Texas

 BNSF M-TPLGAT passes Tower 17 in Rosenberg
Please click the above image to see a larger version.

Scroll down past the intro to see the rest of the photos.

UPDATE (May 2004) Rosenberg's Tower 17, the last traditional manned railroad interlocking tower in Texas, closed in February 2004. Earlier this month, the tower was moved approximately a half-mile to the east, to the property of the Rosenberg Railroad Museum. Unmanned steel signal bungalows now stand watch over the newly automated interlocker; a Union Pacific dispatcher in nearby Spring (a Houston suburb) controls the signals and switches at the crossing.

I had the opportunity to visit the tower on three separate occasions during its final years of operation. Please enjoy the following account of my first visit to Rosenberg's Tower 17 in February 2002.

* * * * *

Tower 17 is the last manned railroad interlocking tower in the state of Texas. To anyone who's spent any length of time watching or photographing trains in Texas, this hardly seems possible. I myself have been shooting photos of Texas trains for a mere 18 years, and I've witnessed numerous towers become casualties of technology and automated operation: North Tower, South Tower, and Tower 19 in Dallas; Tower 55 in Fort Worth; Tower 3 in Flatonia; and Tower 16 in Sherman are just a few of them.

So Tower 17 is all that's left, but what a place it is... featuring a daily train frequency well into the dozens and hosting the likes of UP, BNSF, Amtrak, and -- depending on their routing -- KCS/TFM. Situated just west of downtown Rosenberg, which itself is located roughly 35 miles southwest of downtown Houston, the tower protects the busy crossing of the BNSF (ex-ATSF) Galveston Sub between Temple and Galveston and the UP (ex-Southern Pacific) Glidden Subdivision between San Antonio and Houston. The UP is the busier of the two lines, hosting everything from transcontinental double stack trains to rock shuttles of Texas limestone to "rolling yards" -- drag freights well over a mile in length purged out by Houston's Englewood or Settegast terminals. BNSF's Galveston Sub is no slouch, though, as it hosts manifest freights and intermodal trains into and out of Houston / Galveston, grain trains bound for the Port of Houston, and coal trains destined for Reliant Engergy's Smithers Lake power plant 15 miles to the southeast.

If you spend any length of time at Tower 17, you'll likely see the trains of both UP and BNSF operating over each other's tracks. In fact, there are so many trackage rights trains operating on either line that the uninitiated observer could easily be forgiven as to having no clue which line is which! Sometimes, even the railroads don't always seem to be cut in on which trains will operate where until the very last minute. It's not uncommon for the tower operator to be called upon to "hoop up orders" to a train whose routing has suddenly been altered from the Galveston Sub to the Glidden line as it approaches the tower.

Numerous UP trains utilize trackage rights over BNSF between Sealy (where the BNSF connects with an ex-MKT line between Sealy and Smithville -- now UP's Smithville Subdivision) and Rosenberg, where they return to UP trackage to reach Houston over the Glidden Sub. Other UP trains continue on the BNSF Galveston Sub through Rosenberg to Algoa before returning to UP trackage. Conversely, BNSF trains use the UP Glidden Sub as a shortcut between Rosenberg and Houston, a convenient alternative to its own lengthier route southeast to Alvin and then angling back north to Houston over the Mykawa Subdivision.

KCS / TFM trains running between Laredo and Houston frequently contribute additional color and variety to the daily parade past Tower 17.

If it's Amtrak you want to see, pick one of the three days each week that the Sunset Limited (trains 1 and 2) run in either direction. Check for schedule and location, and don't be surprised if the trains are running late. Not surprising for me was the fact that, no sooner did I decide to take a brief respite from Tower 17 during my recent visit to have lunch at a nearby Sonic, than eastbound # 2 made its Friday appearance past the tower on the Glidden Sub. Consolation was provided, however, by the fact that the rest of the afternoon and evening had the Rosenberg area literally crawling with trains, sometimes with three or four trains in position waiting for their chance to get across the interlocking. So scroll on down and have a look at the photos I took on Friday, February 8, 2002, a cool and clear winter day which I carefully selected with the interest of avoiding the heat and humidity which can plague the Texas gulf coast from March through November. This was my first day at Tower 17:

Please click any of the following thumbnails to see a larger image.

   Rosenberg's city emblem reflects the town's railroad heritage    UP rock train returns to UP trackage at Tower 17    UP local passes Tower 17 in Rosenberg
   UP local at Tower 17, Rosenberg TX    UP 9049 leads a westbound past Rosenberg's Tower 17
   BNSF grain empty approaches Tower 17 on UP's Glidden Sub    BNSF empty coal train approaches Tower 17 in Rosenberg    Railfans give a coal empty a roll-by at Tower 17
   A BNSF train waits to enter the UP Glidden Sub at Tower 17    UP westbound stacks pass Tower 17 in Rosenberg    BNSF coal empty approaches Tower 17
   BNSF Smithers Lake coal empty passes Tower 17    UP local prepares to tie up on a spur track in Rosenberg
   UP GP60 5862 at Tower 17, Rosenberg TX    Tower 17 at dusk, February 8, 2002    UP double stack train passes Tower 17, February 8, 2002

I owe some special thanks to Stephen Foyt and Julian Erceg, who joined me during part of my visit and whose knowledge of the area as "locals" helped me to get a better handle on the rail traffic patterns and operational intricacies of Rosenberg. Thanks, guys!

For information on the newly opened Rosenberg Railroad Museum,
located less than a half-mile east of Tower 17, click here:

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All photographs and text on the Southwest Railfan © 2000 - 2004 by Wes Carr.
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