John Kennedy remembers the first time he climbed the steps up into Jay Tower 22 years ago and saw the behemoth that awaited him: the Union Switch and Signal Model 14 interlocking machine.
A new hire at the Long Island Rail Road, Kennedy had the daunting task to operate the 123 different levers on the World War I-era mechanical device, and in doing so control the complex network of track switches and signals at one of the busiest transit hubs in the nation, Jamaica Station.
"I walked in on the first day and said, 'OK. I've got to tackle this one here,' " Kennedy, 43, of Levittown said Thursday. "It was an experience."
Thursday, Kennedy, who is a train director, likely threw a lever on a Model 14 interlocking machine for the final time. After nearly 100 years of service, the LIRR will take the last of the railroading relics out of service Saturday night, as the agency completes its transition to a fully computerized switching and signal system at Jamaica this weekend.
Because of the $56-million Jamaica Cutover project, the LIRR will run "extremely limited service" this weekend.
For Kennedy and other veteran LIRR train directors who have been retrained on the new system, the modernization project is bittersweet, as it marks the end of a railroading era. Two of Jamaica's three control towers, and the manual switching devices inside them, were already decommissioned two weeks ago. By Monday, Jamaica's entire switching and signal operation will transfer over to the new state-of-the art Jamaica Central Control room.
The new microprocessor-based switching and signal system has many advantages over the antiquated manual system, including better diagnostics to identify problems and redundancies to minimize impact on the LIRR when a problem occurs. It will also consolidate work done at three different towers into one location.
But LIRR officials agree that, despite its age, the mechanical switching equipment remains a technological marvel that served the nation's largest commuter rail road right on through its final days.
"It has been extremely reliable equipment," LIRR president Helena Williams said at a Manhattan news conference Thursday. "We will move on. . . . But we will always respect the contribution that this equipment has made to railroading, not just at the Long Island Rail Road, but in the railroading industry."
The machines are located in Jamaica's two main control towers, Jay and Hall. Inside them, a train director monitoring traffic by phone and computer calls out a command to "lever men." The levers operate a network of interlocking steel rods inside the machine, which, in turn, send an electrical signal to move the switches.
Once a switch is moved, a lever man throws another lever to operate the signal coinciding with that switch - in effect, giving a train engineer the green light to proceed. The 1913-built machines are designed to prevent any accidental movements of switches, which could cause head-on collisions.
"Years ago, whoever thought up these machines was very smart," said Kennedy. "There's nothing wrong with that machine. The machine is great. But it's time to modernize."
Jamaica train directors have literally been counting down the final days for the hulking Model 14 machines, which are about 4 feet high and more than 10 feet wide. For almost a year, they've painted a daily hash mark on the walls inside Jay Tower. Nearby, a scrawled message reads "JSCC here we come," reference to Jamaica Central Control.
Workers earlier this month took down the framed roster sheet that hung in Jay for years and gave it to LIRR Senior Vice President of Operations Ray Kenny - himself a certified train director. The memento now hangs in his office.
"It's hard to say goodbye," said Kennedy.