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"High Ball!": Railroad's Early Signaling System

Published: July 3, 2024

By: Adam Burns

Railroading, with its rich tapestry of traditions and slang, has contributed numerous terms to the lexicon of transportation and beyond.

One such term is "highball," a phrase steeped in history and significance within the railroad industry and remains a widely known such connotation even today.

This article delves into the origins, historical context, and enduring meaning of "highball" in railroading, shedding light on its journey from a practical railroad signal to a symbol of speed and efficiency.

915781725712365178529183276729636.jpgBoston & Maine GP9 #1720 and GP7 #1575, bound for Berlin, have a clear "High Ball" as they set out cars for the Maine Central at Whitefield, New Hampshire on July 22, 1976. This early type of signaling system is where the term "high ball" originated. Ronald Johnson photo.

Historical Origins

The term "highball" can be traced back to the early days of railroading in the 19th century. In its most literal and historical sense, "highball" referred to a railroad signal that indicated to the engineer that it was safe to proceed at full speed. This signal was typically a ball hoisted to the top of a pole or signal tower.

1. **Ball Signals**:

- In the early days of railroads, before the advent of electric signals and more sophisticated signaling systems, railroads used a variety of manual and visual signals to communicate with train crews.

One such method was the use of ball signals, which informed engineers about the status of the track ahead. When the ball was raised to the top of the pole, it signified a clear track and the command to proceed at maximum allowable speed. This was the origin of the term "highball."

2. **Evolution with Technology**:

- As signaling technology advanced, the manual ball signals became obsolete, replaced by semaphores, lights, and other more reliable systems. However, the term "highball" endured, evolving in its usage while retaining the core meaning of proceeding with speed and authority.

Meaning and Usage

In modern railroad parlance, "highball" has evolved to encapsulate several meanings, all centered around the themes of speed, permission, and clear tracks. The term is used both literally and figuratively, in various contexts within and outside the railroad industry.

1. **Signal to Proceed**:

- In contemporary railroading, although ball signals are no longer in use, "highball" still means receiving a clear signal to proceed. It is a call that signals all is clear, and the train can move forward without restriction. In practice, it means all brakes are released, and the train can attain maximum safe speed.

2. **Symbol of Speed**:

- Beyond its literal use, "highball" has come to symbolize speed and efficiency. It is often used to describe a fast-moving train or a situation where rapid progress is being made. Railroaders might say they "highballed" a section of track or "highball" to indicate a preference for keeping operations swift and uninterrupted.

3. **Broader Cultural Impact**:

- The term has transcended railroading to enter broader language and culture. In everyday use, telling someone to "highball it" means to move quickly or with urgency. The connection to its railroad roots remains implicit in the idea of clearing obstacles and pressing ahead at maximum effort.

Role in Railroading Culture

The term "highball" is not just technical jargon but a part of the cultural fabric of railroading. It represents the spirit of the railroaders who strive for punctuality, safety, and efficiency. Here’s a closer look at its cultural significance:

1. **Signal for Punctuality**:

- Punctuality is a hallmark of efficient rail operations. The term "highball" embodies this value by signifying a readiness to proceed and maintain schedules. It is a testament to the disciplined, time-sensitive nature of railroading, where delays have cascading effects on schedules and logistics.

2. **Communication Among Crews**:

- Communication is vital in the railroad industry, ensuring safety and coordination. "Highball" is a succinct, universally understood term among train crews, symbolizing readiness and assurance. It is part of the shorthand that facilitates swift and effective communication in a high-stakes environment.

3. **Sign of Success**:

- "Highball" is often associated with successful railroading operations. A train that receives a highball is a train on schedule, on track, and moving efficiently. It represents everything working smoothly, an ideal state for any railroad operation.

Popular Media and Nostalgia

The term "highball" has also found its way into popular media, contributing to the nostalgic and romanticized view of railroading. This cultural penetration underscores the lasting impression of the term beyond its technical applications.

1. **Books and Movies**:

- Many books, films, and songs about railroads and train travel incorporate the term "highball" to evoke the excitement and adventure of the open tracks. It often symbolizes the roaring journey and the freedom associated with train travel.

2. **Model Railroading and Enthusiasts**:

- Among model railroaders and train enthusiasts, "highball" retains its allure. It is a term steeped in history, often used to add authenticity to model setups and discussions among hobbyists. It connects the miniature world with the real-life drama of railroading.

3. **Railroad Heritage and Preservation**:

- Preservation societies and heritage railways frequently use the term "highball" to celebrate historical operations and events. It serves as a linguistic bridge to the past, keeping the legacy of traditional railroading alive.


The term "highball" in railroading is much more than a simple signal. Its origins in the early ball signals of the 19th century, through its evolution with technological advancements, to the multifaceted meanings it holds today, illustrate the dynamic nature of railroad parlance.

"Highball" symbolizes speed, efficiency, and operational clarity, capturing the spirit of railroading where every second counts and every signal matters.

In essence, "highball" is a testament to the railroad industry’s enduring quest for excellence and operational superiority.

It is a term that has transcended its origins to become a part of the cultural and operational ethos of railroading, a symbol of progress and an echo of the industry's storied past.

Whether in the literal sense of giving the clear signal or in the broader cultural context of speed and efficiency, "highball" stands as a proud emblem of railroading’s storied legacy.

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