Railway Signals




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by Ernest Thompson Seton

Most of us are familiar with some of the signals given by brakemen, conductors, or engineers, but not so many of us have sat right down to inspect the code, as officially fixed. A conductor on the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed me to copy it out from his "Trainman's Book," 1909, and since then I have been told that this is the code in universal use, so I give it in full. It consists of color signals, hand and lantern signals, toots and cord-pulls. It will add a new interest to the journey, at least when you can read the "Signs of the Iron Trail," and the "Talk of the Iron Horse."

The Code

(From C. P. R. "Trainman's Book," 1909, No. 7563; but in general use.)


bulletRed = Stop.   
bulletGreen = Go ahead.   
bulletYellow = Go cautiously.   
bulletGreen and White = Flag station. Stop at night.   
bulletBlue = Workmen busy under car. 


Hand, Flag, and Lamp Signals: 

bulletSwung across track = Stop   
bulletRaised and lowered vertically = Go ahead   
bulletSwung at half-arms' length, in small circle across track, train standing = Back up.   
bulletSwung vertically in a big circle at arms' length across the track, when train is running = Train broken in two.   
bulletSwung horizontally above head, when train is standing = Put on air-brakes   
bulletHeld at arms' length above the head, when train is standing = Release air-brakes. 


Other Hand Signals, modifications of the above: 

bulletHand (or hands) held out horizontally and waved up and down = Go ahead.   
bulletHand (or hands) suddenly drawn flat and horizontal = Stop.   
bulletSometimes hands raised and held palms forward = All right.
bulletArm thrust forward and swept back opposite shoulders, as in beckoning = Come back. 


Signals by Engine Whistle: 

(o a short toot. -- a long one) 
bulleto = Stop; put on brakes.   
bullet-- -- = Take off brakes; get ready to start.   
bullet-- o o o = Flagman go out to protect rear of train.   
bullet-- -- -- -- = Flagman returned from west or south.  
bullet-- -- -- -- -- = Flagman returned from east or north.   
bullet-- -- -- = (When returning) Train broken in two. To be repeated till answered by the same from the trainman, i. e., No. 4 in hand, flag, and lamp signals. Similarly, this is the answer to No. 4 of hand, flag, and lamp signals.   
bulletoo = (All right) the answer to any signal not otherwise provided for.   
bulletooo = (When the train is standing) back up; also is reply to signals to "back up." 
bulletoooo = Call for signals.   
bullet-- oo = Calls attention of other trains to signals.   
bulletoo = The acknowledgment by other trains.   
bullet-- -- oo = Approaching grade-crossings, and at whistle posts.   
bullet-- -- = Approaching stations.  
bulleto -- = (When double-heading) Air-brakes have failed on leading engine, and second engine is to take control of them. Second engine repeats same as soon as it has control   
bulletoooooooooooo, etc. = Cattle (or persons) on the track. 


Air-whistle or Cord-pull 

When the train is standing: 
bulletTwo blasts = Start.   
bulletThree blasts = Back.   
bulletFour blasts = Put on or take off brakes.   
bulletFive blasts = Call in flagman.   
When the train is running: 

(All but the 2nd are answered by 2 blasts) 

bulletTwo blasts = Stop at once.   
bulletThree blasts = Stop at next station.   
bulletFour blasts = Reduce speed.   
bulletFive blasts = Increase speed.   
bulletSix blasts = Increase steam-heat.   
bulletSeven blasts = Release air-brakes, or sticking brake. 

The engineer responds to these with two short toots, meaning "All right," except in the second, when the engineer answers in three short toots.  

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.