Thursday, April 10, 2008

The lost language of trains

If you never thought about it, you might think trains just blow their horns randomly as they are going by.

I used to be one of those people, until I moved into an apartment that is approximately 100 feet from a "grade crossing," or crossing at street level.

Now, every night between 12 and 4 a.m., a train rolls by and blasts its horn at a bone-rattling 100 dB. While working on a news story for the Brighton Blade about train "quiet zones" I discovered that the trains blow their horns in certain patterns, which mean different things. In the loose constraints of the blogosphere, I figure this information fits into the translation motif, and so here is a brief posting about the strange language of trains....

Below is a list of the common signals. The main one we hear at night is the long-long-short-long ( = = o = ) signal, indicating the train is within a 1/4 mile of the crossing. Some engineers take liberties with this signal, and I can now identify the different drivers, based on their interpretation of the signal.

For instance, Mr. Longhorn makes all of his signals really long, so it just drags on forever. Shortround gives two shortish longs, then a really short short burst, but then he lays on the final long for like 10 seconds.

Anyway, here is a list of the now-de-mystified, secret language of trains. (Courtesy of the Union Pacific Web site)

=
means long
o means short

Sound
Translation
Succession
of short sounds

"Look out you fools"
An attempt to get people or cows to look up and get the
heck off the train tracks.
=
"Psssst"
Hitting the air brakes while train is stopped.
= =
"Leaving Dodge"
AKA: woo-woo sound. Train releases brakes and proceeds.
o o
"OK whatever"
Acknowledgment of any signal not otherwise provided for.
o o o

"Backing the thing up"
Train is backing up, or acknowledging hand signal to back up.
o o o o
"Huh?"
A request for a signal to be given or repeated if not understood.
= o o o
"Watch my back"
Instruction for flagman to protect rear of train.
= = = =
"Come back!"
The flagman may return from west or south.
= = = = =
"Come baaack!"
The flagman may return from east or north.
= = o =

"Wake up, Ben and Michala!!"
Train is approaching public crossings at grade with engine in front.
Signal starts not less than 15 seconds but not more than 20 seconds
before reaching the crossing. If movement is 45 mph or greater, signal starts at or about the crossing sign, but not more than 1/4 mile before the crossing if there is no sign. Signal is prolonged or repeated until the engine completely occupies the crossing(s).
In addition, this signal is used when approaching private crossings if pedestrians or motor vehicles are at or near the crossing.

o =
"Crap, no brakes!"
Inspect the brake system for leaks or sticking brakes.
= o

"Coming through! Quiet zone be damned!"
Train is approaching people or equipment on or near the track, regardless of any whistle prohibitions.
After this initial warning, "o o" sounds intermittently until the head end of train has passed the people or equipment.

2 comments:

Susan said...

Love the blog about trains and anything else--you write good!

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Thanks Mom! You too.