Answer Man: Train whistles go by the rules

News-DemocratMay 6, 2013 

Q. Can you tell me why or when the signal of two longs, a short and a long blast became the standard warning of a train approaching a crossing? Do two short blasts indicate forward movement?

-- Bernard Stelzer, of Collinsville

A. I'm sure you've heard that great Johnny Cash tune "Folsom Prison Blues": "When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry."

Well, nearly two centuries ago, some folks in Leicester, England, were crying because they didn't hear a whistle -- mainly because there wasn't such a thing yet.

It was Saturday May 4, 1833, and engineer Martin Weatherburn was piloting his engine Samson when he ran headlong into a cart filled with 50 pounds of butter and 80 dozen eggs, according to a website chronicling two millennia of Leicester's history.

One account said Weatherburn blew a horn with his mouth, but it couldn't be heard over the engine. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and it may have led to a red-letter day in railroad history: the origin of the train whistle.

The accident reportedly drew the attention of George Stephenson, an English civil and mechanical engineer now known as the "Father of Railways." He called a meeting of the railroad's directors, who agreed that a loud steam whistle should be mounted to the locomotive.

So, Stephenson visited a musical instrument maker in Leicester and had him construct a "steam trumpet" about 18 inches high with a mouth about 6 inches in diameter. Ten days later, it was mounted on top of the boiler's steam dome that delivered dry steam to the cylinders. The test was a success and soon all of the company's trains were fitted with the device.

At least, that is one popular story. Some say it happened in 1832 when the company was saluting its new steam locomotive Comet on its inaugural run. It was there a stationmaster reportedly suggested to Stephenson that a whistle could be an important safety device.

Whatever the real story, whistles and horns became standard equipment on trains. At first, engineers probably figured just tooting their own horns was enough to warn wagon drivers and pedestrians.

But before the advent of radios in the engine, engineers found that whistles could be useful in communicating with, for example, workers in the rail yards. So, over the years, an intricate system of train signals was devised.

Exactly when the rules were standardized is hard to pin down. One 1890 rule book, for example, listed a signal of one long and two shorts for crossings. That apparently later became two longs and two shorts before everyone agreed on today's two longs, a short and a long.

"The conventional sounding pattern dates back over a century and was subsequently codified in railroad operating rules," Mike England at the Federal Railroad Administration told me. According to federal regulations issued in 2005, all trains generally must sound their horns 15-20 seconds in advance of all public grade crossings. (For the precise rules, go to www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/details/L04309.)

The reason for that particular crossing signal also provides for some interesting railroad lore. No matter which story you believe, it is Morse code for the letter Q.

I've found one account that says it originated in England. When long-reigning Queen Victoria would ride the rails, the engineer would signal Q every time her train came to a crossing or depot. This, however, may be an urban legend.

A more likely story may be that it gives the same message as a telegraph operator used to. According to some, those operators would send out the letter Q to tell all others on a telegraph line to "wait for me" -- that he was going to be momentarily interrupted but did not want others to send until he was finished.

Similarly, the story goes, engineers produced the Q with their whistles to say "wait for me to pass" (or "get the heck out of my way!")

Whatever the real reason, it remains central in what is known as The General Code of Operating Rules. These signals include two longs for "train releasing brakes and proceeding," a long and a short to request a brake system inspection and three shorts for backing up. Two shorts is simply "acknowledgment of any signal not otherwise provided for."

For a detailed list, go Union Pacific at www.up.com and search for "horn signals."

Today's trivia

How many pounds of Jelly Bellies did President Ronald Reagan order for his 1981 inaugural?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Viewers probably best remember Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, but the Canadian comedy team of Wayne & Shuster was the most frequent guest on "The Ed Sullivan Show" with 58 appearances followed by Topo Gigio (50), Jack Carter (49) and opera singer Roberta Peters (41), according to edsullivan.com.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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