Unfortunately, this still did not reduce the number of accidents due to runaways as brakemen could either not apply the brakes fast enough or the rudimentary systems used at time were simply not enough to stop several tons of moving wood, steel, and freight within the time-frame needed. During several of these runaway accidents the crewman was simply incapacitated and could not perform the task at hand due to either falling off the train or had been severely injured in some manner. Not only did the railroad industry have few technologies available to improve safety or provide a more efficient service but there were also few safety protocols in place whatsoever. One of the few available for the brakeman was the tell-tale.
This structure was once quite common along railroad tracks as it was used to warn the men that an impending low obstruction was ahead such as a tunnel entrance, water tower, signal, or bridge clearance. Interestingly, however, a standard design for tell-tales was not put into place until 1926, more than 30 years after air-brakes became mandatory on all locomotives and cars. At this time, according to Trains.com, a tell-tale was to be placed 100 to 300 feet away from the impending obstacle and standing at least 21 feet high to clear passing equipment. Hanging from a single-track tell-tale, which was cantilevered, was rope so that a brakeman could easily be made aware of what was ahead if he was predisposed at the moment (rope, of course, was also a soft material to avoid injury when making contact).
Tell-tales were also placed across two or more tracks in which they looked similar to a signal bridge with ropes dangling below the support span. In 1868 George Westinghouse invented the automatic air-brake system that is still commonly used today. Not only did this device greatly improve efficiency by being able to stop a train much faster but it also no longer required brakeman to travel the tops of freight cars. Additionally, trains could now be operated in much greater lengths which allowed for more freight (and profit) to be carried during a single run. Finally, in 1893 the federal government required that air-brakes be made mandatory on all railroad equipment. Interestingly, however, brakeman continued to walk the rooftops well into the 20th century until the practice was finally banned. Today, even after more than a half-century since they fell out of use several tell-tales can still be seen along the tracks, a reminder of railroading's by-gone era.
If you are interested in fallen flags and classic systems before the modern merger movement took hold I would suggest purchasing one, or all three volumes of Mike Schafer’s Classic American Railroads series of books. The publications feature a wealth of information and are loaded with colored photographs covering names like the Baltimore & Ohio, Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee Road, and lots more. If you have any interest in most famous bygone railroads which once operated in the U.S. I would strongly recommend picking up one, two, or even all three of Mr. Schafer’s book. I truly cannot say enough just how enjoyable and fun they are to read and peruse through.