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The Line Gang: Fixing SEPTA Signal Wires

The train control signal system for Regional Rail ensures safe train movements, track switching and rail-highway grade crossing operations. This system, remotely managed from SEPTA's Control Center, has control locations known as interlockings. These interlockings get their power from 100 Hz signal power lines that run along the railroad.

Signals are vital to a mass transit system - the circuits are used to detect train movement, allowing controllers to pinpoint a train's exact location. Because trains are guided by fixed rails, making operations clear and precise is essential to the prevention of accidents.

When the signal power lines are down, so are the trains along that track. Many things can bring the lines down, including weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow, wind and fallen trees and branches.

If the signal power wires go down in a remote area far from road access, the line gang must travel to the locations to make repairs via a specialty truck built to ride on the rails, known as a high rail bucket truck. If the high rail truck is not available, or if the rail is not available because trains are using it, the team must reach the location by foot.

As members of the line gang, walking miles to a repair location is just part of the job for Steve Sappington and Jeff "Tag" Tartaglione. Without the convenience of the bucket truck, the line gang must also carry their heavy gear and equipment to the site.

"It's fulfilling to know that our work is essential in keeping the trains running for commuters," said Sappington, Assistant Director of the Electrical Power Department. Sappington has logged more than 14 years of service with SEPTA.

The power crews have to utilize their safety training when working on the power lines. The 4,400-volt signal power line is always energized or "hot." Before they can begin their work, the power dispatcher at the Control Center must de-energize the lines, ensuring that the six-member line gang is able to work efficiently and safely.

Crew members like Tartaglione, a Power Department trainee, regularly climb 30 feet up power poles. While wearing special climbing gear, known as pole skates, on his feet to help him the scale the power poles, Tartaglione "skates" up the catenary structures to reach and work on the damaged lines. It can be exhausting work. Depending on the difficulty level of the task, he can be suspended high up in the air for more than two hours. The resulting fatigue can cause climbing down to be even trickier than climbing up.

"I get a rush while I'm working, and that helps me get through some tough situations," said Tartaglione.

Line gang workers climb as much as 30 feet up poles to do their jobs.

Jeff 'Tag' Tartaglione and Steve Sappington.

A bucket truck assists the line gang.

A line gang member works while a train passes below.