Friday, October 24, 2014

The Red-Eyed Guard: A History of Grade Crossing Signs and Signals




For most people, the railroad is, in a literal sense, background noise.  Those who do not commute or work in the railroad industry only get a look at a train when it blocks the road and prevents them from getting to their destination. Since being stopped at a grade crossing is the universal and singular way in which most of us encounter the railroads, the crossbuck, gates and and blinking lights have become an instantly recognizable symbol of the railroad industry as a whole. In this article, we’ll look at the history of grade crossings, and the longstanding question of whether the public or the railroad companies bears the responsibility for preventing collisions.

Before the invention of the railroads, collisions between multiple vehicles were rare. Even the largest wagons were limited to the speed at which a horse could travel, and bearing a runaway carriage or a spooked horse, there was no difficulty in stopping a moving vehicle.


Steam locomotives were the first self-propelled vehicle that could travel at any sort of a sustained speed*. The first trains seldom traveled more than 15 miles an hour, but average speeds increased in keeping with technological improvements in building locomotives and more stable railroad tracks.

Owing to their larger size and faster rate of travel, trains had far more destructive potential than any previous method of travel. When the railroad was in its infancy, though, collisions between trains and pedestrians or livestock were rare. It was far more common for trains to be involved with collisions with other trains, because the development of dependable signal systems lagged several decades behind the invention of locomotives.

The railroad system in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world developed at a feverish pace once its ability to turn a profit became clear. The web of tracks expanded to connect a constellation of towns into one tight network, and made settlements in far-flung locations feasible. The tracks often went right through the heart of town, in order to give the railroad access the local industries, and bisected previously existing roads and footpaths. A higher and higher percentage of the population came in close contact with the railroads. Inevitably, injuries and fatalities resulted, and steadily climbed as the railroads continued to increase their reach.
Railroad gate in the UK, still used in modern times. 

In an attempt to lessen the risk of the public wandering into the path of oncoming trains, railroad companies in the United States and the United Kingdom began to install wooden gates at the busiest intersections of roads and railroad tracks.  These could be moved in order to block off either the railroad tracks or the road, depending on which was currently in use. The first American patent for such a device was given in August 1867, and in the United Kingdom, railroad companies attempted to place signal houses as close as possible to frequently trafficked crossings so the staff could confirm that no road traffic was present before allowing trains forward.  In both countries, a substantial number of women were employed to staff the crossings--a rare source of steady, outside the home employment.

By the mid 19th century, the railroads in the United Kingdom had matured, and track construction and traffic in the United States swelled  after the Civil War.  Almost half a century of unbridled growth had made many railroad companies exceedingly profitable and vested with significant political power. This, especially in the United States, made them the subject of public scrutiny. The railroads’ former excuse--that individuals who were injured or killed had failed to remain clear of the tracks and were thus at fault--had begun to wear thin.

The United States Supreme Court took up the issue of who, exactly, was responsible for safety at grade crossings in an 1877 case titled Continental Improvement Company v. Stead. The majority opinion stated that the division was “mutual and reciprocal.”  In other words, while the public did have a duty to be aware of their surroundings, the railroads also bore a responsibility to provide fair warning when trains were approaching.
Crossing sign, dating to about 1900. 

In response to this ruling, and to the increasing number of accidents, the railroad companies made a more proactive attempt to clearly mark all intersections of roads and railroad tracks, instead of just the busiest crossings.  The first signs that they installed were usually posted at a height of 9 feet, so as to be visible to people riding on horseback,  and varied in shape and wording. Eventually, the standard became a crossbuck, or saltire in more formal heraldic terms, with black lettering. As time progressed,  these signs began to incorporate whatever reflective materials were available at the time.

The United Kingdom continued to use gates as a primary traffic barrier. In some places, they were used well into the 20th century. Railroad companies in the United States transitioned instead a single iron bar, painted in the crosshatched pattern familiar in the present day. This could be lowered or raised  in seconds, and did not require the crossing attendant to leave the shack when a train was on the way. Since they were significantly heavier than wooden gates, most of the women who had previously manned crossings were no longer physically capable of carrying out their duties.

The way in which train crews signaled to each other, and to warn the public, were also standardized during the late 19th century. Prior to the invention of portable radios, the primary use of whistle signals had been to coordinate crew activities and train movements. With increased scrutiny placed on their role in accidents, train engineers were instructed to ring their bells and whistle at all crossings in order to alert the public to their presence.  The familiar “--O-” signal, used by all American railroad companies, originates from around this time.

This crossing sing is little different than any other street sign. 

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, as automobiles became a common source of personal transportation, fatalities at railroad crossings dramatically increased. Drivers sitting inside of a car have a smaller field of vision than someone on foot or horseback,  and are insulated from a train’s whistle and the sounds from other warning devices.  In addition,  the fact that even early cars carried combustible fuel and were larger and more solidly built than horse drawn wagons presented more of a risk to the crew inside of the locomotive.

Around 1915,  it became technologically feasible to install self-activating electric lights and
bells at railroad crossings. It was no longer necessary to depend on a person to give forewarning of a train on the way, and feasible to protect less frequented railroad crossings.

The first type of moving device installed at intersections in the United States was known as a wig-wag: a swinging light hung off of a pole that activated when a train was in the vicinity. Only a handful of wigwags survive to the present day, and those that survive after being taken out of service have become hot collectors items. The Disney-Pixar movie Cars, of all things,  had a scene which briefly featured a wigwag. (Let the record show, I do not approve of this clip’s beat-the-train content.)

By 1920, there were approximately 10 million cars on the roads in the United States, and 250,000 railroad crossings. Train and vehicle collisions increased both in frequency, and in the likelihood of a fatality resulting: In this same year, more than 1000 people were killed and almost 4000 people were injured in preventable crossing accidents.



One of the first concerted efforts to raise awareness of the potential danger at railroad crossings came a decade later. Sponsored by the American Railroad Association and endorsed by the management of many American railroad companies, the Careful Crossing Campaign reminded drivers to stop at crossings and take the time to ensure that no trains were in sight before crossing the tracks. The Campaign’s awareness strategy depicted collisions and near misses between trains and other vehicles, and borrowed the phrase which had been put on crossbuck arms since the 19th century-- “Stop, Look, and Listen.”

Urging drivers to be cautious around railroad tracks no doubt prevented some collisions, but was not as effective as a physical barrier. In the 1950s, researchers at the Stanford Research Institute working at the Southern Pacific’s request, developed the technology for fully mechanized grade crossing gates. The activators developed during this decade were an improvement over the activators used with wigwag signals, which could not determine the speed of an approaching train and sometimes gave inappropriately long or short warning times. These newer versions contained small computers which calculated the proper time to activate in order to give drivers and pedestrians in the area approximately thirty seconds of warning before the gates lowered. Over time, this technology spread out to most other countries in the world.

The sentinels at the railroad crossings have, more or less, appeared in this same form since the 1960s. The technological developments since then have been minor and mostly invisible, such as improving the sensors and wiring some crossing gates to solar panels. The one significant change is the FRA’s increased allowance of quiet zones, where train engineers are forbidden to use the whistles except in cases of imminent danger.  The gates at these crossings are designed to completely block the crossing and interlock when lowered. Quiet zones are usually granted after a petition from members of the public who have tired of the noise from train horns, but by some estimates, have a higher danger rate.

In the spirit of preventing casualties, we'll end this article with a public service announcement. Despite the tireless work of Operation Lifesaver and other advocacy groups there are still several thousand collisions and hundreds of deaths at grade crossings every year.  Every single one of these incidents is preventable, and each of them leaves a traumatic impact on the members of the train crew involved.

Don't be the guy that proves we still need these safety measures.

*Steam  boats preceded the invention of steam locomotives, but, provided that both are operated properly, they will never cross paths.