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How Trains Communicate with People

Every motorized vehicle known to mankind incorporates a unique, distinct warning system that communicates one or more specific messages to pedestrians and other vehicles alike. Cars,trucks and boats have horns, some vehicles have backup beepers, but the most notorious, ear-piercing warning system of all is the one that’s made by train whistles.

Unlike the aforementioned vehicles that most people drive on a daily basis, where the horn is mostly used for only one purpose, train whistles are utilized as audible communications and traffic signals to warn railroad workers and encroaching pedestrians and other vehicles of the trains intentions.

There are two distinct whistle sounds a train makes, and by utilizing different combinations of these two sounds, trains are able to communicate to you exactly what they are going to do. Just as Morse code uses short clicks and long clicks to communicate a unique message, trains use short and long whistle blasts to tell you what the train is doing.

The most prevalent train whistle signal meanings may be referenced by using the letter “o” to represent a short whistle blast lasting approximately one-quarter to two seconds long, and the letter “X” to represent a long train whistle blast which lasts for approximately three to 10 seconds or longer.

With this basic understanding of the signaling method, here is what the various signals mean just in case you should ever have a need to utilize this knowledge.

o – The train is stopped and brakes engaged.

X – The train is approaching the station or junction.

XXo – The train is approaching the meeting point or waiting point of other trains.

XX – The train is releasing its brakes to proceed.

XXoX – The train is approaching a public road or grade crossing. A warning to people and livestock to get off the track.

oo – This is an answer to any other signal not provided for.

Xo – This is a signal for train personnel to inspect the brake system for leaks.

oX – This is a signal that’s primarily for railroad personnel telling them to inspect the train.

oooo – This is a train request for other signals.

Xoo – An additional section follows the signaling train.

oooX – This signal is for railroad flagmen to protect the rear of the train.

Xooo – This signal is for railroad flagmen to protect the front of the train.

XXXX – This signal instructs the flagmen to return to the train from the west and north.

XXXXX – This signal instructs the flagmen to return to the train from the east and south.

ooX – Road engine control brakes.

ooo – If the train is moving, stop at the next station; or if the train is standing still, it’s getting ready to back up.

ooooX – This is a fire alarm; it signals a fire on the train.

It must be noted that with the invention of modern communication devices, some of these signals are no longer used by some of the most modern railroads. For example, the signals for railroad flagmen are no longer needed since flagmen are a thing of the past.

By learning all of the distinct, unique messages that train whistles convey, you’ll be able to talk about the subject from an educated point of view. You may find that most people have no idea what the signals mean, and by educating them, you just may be that influence in their life that will make them pay heed to the next train whistle they hear.