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Rail Communications Use All the Bells and Whistles

by Jamie Reid

Bells first appeared on American locomotives in the early to mid 1830s, as a warning device in yards and at railroad crossings. Whistles were originally developed in England, appearing slightly later here. Both were in general use by the end of the 1830s. Steam whistles were louder and served both as warning and signaling devices.

Bells on passenger trains were sounded for a short period before the train moved, the ringing continuing until the locomotive left the station. The bell was an indication that a train was either moving or about to move. The fireman usually controlled the bell, originally tugging on a cord to ring it, while later bells were actuated by air pressure, requiring the fireman or engineer only to turn a knob. Bells were also sounded in urban areas where the ringing bell could be heard long before the puffing steam engine. Noise pollution makes bells less effective today.

Whistles served not only as a warning, but were a communications signal for train crews as well. Without radios, communications depended on hand and light signals, often answered by a locomotive whistle. Sometimes whistles served alone. Whistle signals sounded between locomotives and operators in depots, or to the flagman protecting the rear of a train. Only the engine's whistle had the volume to be heard long distances

Different patterns of long and short tones had meanings. One combination might announce a station stop ahead, another would tell the engineer on a helper engine to begin pulling. Before automatic air brakes became common in the early part of the twentieth century, "whistle down brakes" was a signal for brakemen to run along the roofs of cars, turning or tightening "down" hand brakes. Automatic brakes eliminated this dangerous practice.

Today only a few whistle signals remain. Two blasts of the whistle or air horn announce a train about to move ahead. Three blasts, and the informed understand that the train is about to back up. This may confuse the onlooker, because "back" and "forward" relate only to the orientation of the locomotive, not its train. So if an engine has been place to run in reverse while pulling the train ahead, you will hear the engineer give a back up signal.

A single short blast announces that brakes have been set, important knowledge if passengers are about to be loaded or unloaded. Sometimes a series of short blasts serves as a warning to persons or animals on the tracks. Everyone has heard the grade crossing signal of two long blasts, a short, and another long blast, sounds giving warning to all crossing the right of way.

Long ago locomotive engineers took pride in their ability to "play" their whistles, quilling the tone to make each whistle an individual signature. Once engineers purchased their own whistles, moving them from locomotive to locomotive. These multiple chime whistles would play tunes, and some engineers were known for their artistry. Alas, corporate efficiency replaced individuality and whistles were standardized and supplied by the railroads Still, engineers "played" their whistles by muting parts of the sound and opening up on others.

When diesels replaced steam, air horns took over. The first of these gave off a deep unpleasant blatt that was generally disliked. These were soon replaced by multiple tone air chimes. While air horns cannot be played in the manner of their steam predecessors, they still offer some opportunity for individuality. On track alongside the museum, you can listen for the different sounds as trains pass by.

Individuality is rapidly passing as railroads merge into great systems. At the same time, technical improvements offer less opportunity for the engineer's self expression. One recent development has the engineer merely push a button, causing a prerecorded crossing signal to play. Perhaps future whistles and bells will not need human intervention.

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Last updated June 13, 2006