The sound of a train whistle echoing across the countryside is one of the timeless romantic contributions the railroad has made to our lives. Different railroads had different whistles and even individual engineers had distinct ways of "playing" the whistle with their own signature sounds.
But whistles were more than just melodic warning devices. In days before radios, they were a vital communication tool for the train crew in the caboose and workers along the tracks.
To call for different things, the engineer used a combination of short and long "toots" to craft a signal. Not unlike Morse code on the telegraph, these long and short signals each had specific meanings.
Today's model trains are now often equipped with sounds. Some decoders even have options for different types of whistles and horns. And there are some advanced decoders and systems like Lionel's LEGACY system that allow you to "play" the whistle like the engineer.
You can use these same signals to enhance operations on your own layout. Here are some of the more common signals and their meanings. "o" means a short and "-" is a long toot.
- - o - Approaching a railroad crossing
- - When standing, move forward (today o o is more common)
o o o When standing, move backward
- When moving,approaching a station
- When stopped, air brakes applied
- - - - Call for signals (at a manned interlocking tower)
o o o o o o Warning for people or livestock ahead on the track or other emergency
o o o - Flagman protect the front of the train
- o o o Flagman protect the rear of the train
- - - - Recall flagmen from the west / south
- - - - - Recall flagmen from the east / north
Some railroads had other specific signals as well. And it was not uncommon for train crews to develop their own codes for all sorts of communication.
While these signals have become much less common since the advent of 2-way radios and other modern devices, the whistle remains an important warning and communications tool.
The bell too serves as another warning device and railroads have rules for its use. Common times for use are when starting to move, passing standing equipment, passing or stopping at station platforms, and when running down tracks in streets.