Last revised: March 17, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Wayside signs were once a
common sight along the railroad tracks and to some extent still are
In the classic era, each company had their own style of wayside signs they used although one which became universal was the whistle post.
This particular sign was typically a concrete post around 4 feet tall with a large "W" engraved or painted on it informing railroad engineers to begin sounding the whistle (in the diesel era it is the air horn) at that location.
Today, if you pay attention to structures lining the railroad tracks you may notice signs that say "Begin DTC Block" or "End DTC Block" which simply refers to what type of dispatching system controls the railroad line.
Wayside signs have long been an added communication device railroads have employed to convey a certain messages, especially those that are constant and should always be heeded once a train enters a certain area or location.
For instance, on approach to a railroad yard trains will usually pass a sign that says something to the effect of "Yard Limits" or "Now Entering Yard Limits."
These terms mean the train must always operate at a greatly reduced speed while inside the yard and always be on the lookout for other trains, cars, personnel, and switch engines (locomotives which work exclusively in railroad yards kicking freight cars).
As mentioned above the whistle post is likely the most famous of the wayside railroad signs, indicating to the engineer when to sound his whistle.
Other classic railroad signs include:
It should be noted that railroad signals should not be confused as wayside railroad signs, they perform a completely different function.
Railroad signals are an integral part of railroading, without them there is absolutely no way trains could safely operate, particularly on single track lines.
However, more than just for safety signals allow for the efficient and steady flow of trains, enabling several to operate over a single-tracked line.
Signals have their beginnings dating back to the industry's infancy itself with the famed ball-type signal. Perhaps, though, the most famous signal-type of all was the semaphore, which came into use in the mid-19th century and even today can still be found in regular service!
While signal displays and meanings often varied from railroad to railroad some of the most common types were the color-light signals (or tri-lights), searchlights, position-lights, and color-position lights with the tri-light the most popular today.
The first railroad signals came into use in 1832 on the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad but really came of age in 1872 with the invention of the track circuit by William Robinson.
This circuitry allowed for the steel rail's natural conductivity to be employed thus giving birth to automatic block signaling systems, the leader of which remains Union Switch & Signal created by George Westinghouse in 1881. Today US&S is part of Ansaldo STS, an Italian company.
One of the less recognized wayside railroad signs are the quarter, half and three-quarter mileposts.
Before the days of GPS and computer-controlled signaling systems these mileposts helped train crews gauge their location between each mile marker not only for purposes of knowing how close the train was to its destination but also in the event of an accident or derailment.
Different railroads used different indications on these "less-than" mileposts.
Some simply used fractional numbers (i.e., 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, etc.) while others like the Southern Railway used a series of dots and dashes to denote the meaning.
In any event, all the signs listed here are certainly not every type that was used just a cluster of many of the best recognized.
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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives.
It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.
It is quite staggering and a must visit!