Nickel Plate Rules


  1. Introduction
  2. Operating Rules
  3. Train Orders
  4. Signals
  5. Train Signals
  6. Fixed Signals
  7. Telegraph and Operators
  8. References


I have recently had the opportunity to examine the book of operating rules of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad Co., taking effect 1 February 1913. This is an interesting document with some curious features that may interest the reader. This article discusses the provisions of this rulebook, relating them to the general practice of the Standard Code of Operating Rules or the ARA (as it was then), here called the "Code." It would be interesting to have at least some operating timetables that were issued in the currency of this rule book. We do not now have any information on the interpretations of many of the rules, so the discussions must be theoretical ones, based entirely on the evidence of the rulebook itself. The reader may find the discussion rather technical at some points, since it assumes a prior knowledge of the Code and its historical development and application.

The New York, Chicago and St. Louis was built between 1881 and 1883 to "blackmail" the New York Central System's Lake Shore and Michigan Southern between Buffalo and Chicago. In 1882, the road began using the Randolph Street station of the Illinois Central. It seems to have provided somewhat better service than the LS&MS, so the New York Central resolved that it had to go. In 1887 it was purchased from its promoters for a distinctly elevated price, which gave rise to the quip that it must have been nickel-plated to be so expensive. Thereafter, it was generally known as the Nickel Plate Road. Although operated independently, the Vanderbilts naturally allowed it to languish, and it declined into a rusty mediocrity compared to the favored LS&MS. In 1892 the NYC&StL moved to the La Salle Street Station in Chicago, the terminus of the LS&MS. In these years, the NYC&StL was a single-track, branchless line that went nowhere near either New York or Saint Louis. The rule book discussed here was issued in this period.

A suit under the new Clayton Antitrust Act compelled the New York Central to divest itself of the parallelling Nickel Plate, so in July 1916 it was sold to the Cleveland real-estate developers O. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen, who needed some of its property for their Shaker Heights Rapid Transit line, then being developed. At all costs, the property had to be kept out of the control of the Pennsylvania Railroad (which, however, made no movement in this direction), and the Van Sweringens were considered friendly. The Van Sweringens installed J. J. Bernet, a very capable executive from the New York Central system, as president. He made many improvements, among them double-tracking the main line, and concentrating on through freight service, which made the line quite profitable.

O. P. and M. J. found railway ownership much to their liking. They were bachelor brothers from Wooster, Ohio, of very modest origins, though they later added the Van to recall their 17th-century noble Dutch ancestors of Delaware. They specialized in attracting the resources of other investors while retaining control through holding companies, something they had learned in real estate. They took full advantage of the bull market in stocks in the 20's to further their plans, but the Depression eventually ruined them. In 1922, they purchased the Toledo, St. Louis and Western, the "Clover Leaf Line" that ran from Toledo to St. Louis, as well as the Lake Erie and Western, which ran from Sandusky to Peoria, with branches to Michigan City and Indianapolis, which had been controlled by the New York Central since 1899. This was originally a narrow-gauge line built during the narrow-gauge fever of the 1880's. There was also a narrow-gauge Toledo, Cincinnati and St. Louis, the largest narrow-gauge railway in the U.S., which may have been a Clover Leaf predecessor. The Clover Leaf was a direct competitor with the Wabash, which ran from Toledo to Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis. In 1923, these lines were consolidated into the Nickel Plate, forming the system shown in the map, in which the consituent parts are easily distinguished.

This was only the first step in the Van Sweringen's plans. They gained control of the Chesapeake and Ohio, its important connection the Hocking Valley, the Pere Marquette, another Buffalo-Chicago carrier serving Michigan, and the Erie, then as always in desperate financial straits. An application was made in 1925 to the ICC for the consolidation of these five lines into a greater Nickel Plate, to be called the N. Y. C. & St. L. Railway. This was an excellent plan, but the Van Sweringens' maneuvers to assemble control were considered sufficient cause to reject the plan. Unlike modern business wheelers and dealers, the Van Sweringens were by no means predatory or criminal, but simply ingenious. The U. S. government was very interested in a plan for railway consolidation in the northeast, and the Nickel Plate plan would have fit in excellently, creating a fourth strong trunk line to accompany the PRR, NYC and B&O. However, railway legislation was at its bungling worst throughout this period, consolidation was never achieved, and eventual collapse was guaranteed by the close cooperation of pig-headed businessmen and stupid regulators.

The principal connections at Buffalo were to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, over which through passenger service operated, and with the Lehigh Valley. Neither line, then relatively wealthy and successful, would welcome aquisition by the Nickel Plate. The alternative was the Erie, but this combination failed due to the ICC. The Nickel Plate later operated the Wheeling and Lake Erie lines between Toledo and Wheeling with branches, which gave it access to coal, that originally was supposed to have been provided by the C&O. The Van Sweringens controlled the C&O through the Vaness Company, the Alleghany Corporation and the Chesapeake Corporation, a typical Van Sweringen pyramid. The head offices of the Nickel Plate and the C&O were both in Cleveland. The Nickel Plate and the Wabash were absorbed by the Norfolk and Western in the late 1960's, which later became the Norfolk Southern.

In 1931, the Nickel Plate Limited, trains 8 and 5, left Chicago and New York in the morning, arriving at the other terminal the next morning, requiring about 23 hours for the journey. There were three or four trains daily on the main line. Passenger service was also provided, by night trains, from St. Louis to Cleveland via Muncie, and from St. Louis to Toledo. The trains were combined from Frankfort to St. Louis. Daytime trips were made from Indianapolis to Michgan City and return, and from Frankfort to Peoria and return. The lines from Fort Wayne to Rushville and Connersville, and the Sandusky and Minster branches were freight-only. The Nickel Plate was never a great player in the passenger business, but was useful to the on-line towns. It was mainly known for fast freight service, and for its locomotives from the on-line Lima Locomotive Works.

Operating Rules

The rules are based on the Standard Code, with modifications that were always permitted. The Standard Code was just a suggestion and recommendation, which managements were allowed to accept, reject or modify as they saw fit. Although the Train Rules Committee was not always right, their recommendations were usually better than the ideas of managements who modified the Standard Code. This rulebook is actually not up-to-date for 1913, retaining many earlier readings and rule numberings that do not reflect the Code at that time. The operating rules actually occupy only a small portion of the book, most of which is devoted to detailed instructions for employees of various classes. I will not say much about these latter rules, except that their inclusion with the operating rules in a continuous series tends to obscure the operating rules in a heap of irrevelant material (the Train Rules Committee deplored this in general). There are even instructions on where to shut off the steam heat approaching terminals (e.g., westbound trains: open rear valve at Forest Street, Cleveland and shut off steam at east end, Broadway Yard). These additional rules should be in a separate section at the end of the book. The making of detailed rules, not always intelligent ones, is characteristic of railway managment. In reading this rulebook, one can often imagine hearing the loud and confident assertions of an opinionated and not-too-bright senior manager, such as always rises to the top in a railway company.

Under the important rules for the movement of trains, Standard Code rules 90, 92 and 100 are explicity shown as "omitted." Rule 90 is the important rule that at meeting or passing points of trains of the same class, the meeting point should be approached prepared to stop, and that if the expected train is not found, the superior train should approach all sidings prepared to stop until the expected train is found. NKP Rule 88, on the other hand, states only that at such points the inferior train must clear the main track before the leaving time of the superior train. That is, no clearance time is allowed. This dangerous inconsistency is a clear invitation for accident, and the crews involved would in fact probably act in the spirit of Rule 90.

Already at this time there was discussion about sounding a whistle signal approaching schedule or train order meeting points, to show the conductor that the engineman was aware. If this signal was not sounded, then the conductor was directed to stop the train immediately. In 1915, the Standard Code provided the whistle signal - - o, Rule 14(n), for this purpose, and Rule 90 was modified accordingly. This recognizes the reality that the engineman usually runs the train while the conductor takes tickets and handles other business. The Standard Code, however, relies on the engineman and conductor's being jointly responsible for running the train, and checking each other. Many serious accidents have resulted when the conductor ignored this rule (one example is the collision at Terre Haute, IN on the C&EI in 1944, and there are many others, where the rule was in force but not observed). There are explicit and strong instructions in the NKP rulebook for showing orders to firemen and brakemen, but this also was routinely neglected, and sometimes the conductor himself did not read the orders carefully. The rule implies that the firemen and brakemen were sometimes happy to remain in ignorance. The discipline required to make sure that all members of the crew cooperated was seldom enforced by trainmasters, since it was very difficult to accomplish. Firemen who brought such matters to the attention of the engineman were often just told to shut up. This was the single largest cause of accidents under the train order system.

Code Rule 92, omitted in this rulebook, states that a train must not arrive before its scheduled arrival time, nor leave before its scheduled leaving time. The first part of this rule was later omitted, as being difficult to observe at meeting or passing points, but at this date was still very much in effect. An arrival time was convenient if a train took a long time from the preceding station. If it left A at, say, 9.35 am and was scheduled to leave the next station B at 10.15 am, a yard engine at B would have to be in the clear at 9.30 am (no allowance can be made for any time that may actually be required to cover the distance). An arrival time of 10.10 am in the timetable would allow the yard engine to work until 10.05 am, an extra 35 minutes. The NKP managers obviously thought Rule 5 covered this, when it mentions arrival and leaving times in timetables.

Rule 100 provides that when a flagman is left behind, another specified crew member must take his place on the train. The Standard Code thinks this is important enough to be emphasized by rule. The NKP thought it probably was unnecessary to specify anyone. It might be, until people start pointing to one another saying "I thought it was your job!" after an incident, which is why the Code rule was there.

Two rules in the NKP code, which were already becoming old-fashioned, may perplex a modern observer. Rule 84 states that a train leaving its initial station or a junction when a train of the same class in the same direction is overdue, will proceed on its schedule and the overdue train will run as prescribed by Rule 91 (time interval). Rule 93 states that a regular train with is delayed and falls back on the time of another train of the same class, will proceed on its own schedule. This does not mean that the train affected would in any way assume some new schedule, but merely that it can run ahead of the delayed train of the same class.

Indeed, later rules provided explicitly that extra trains could pass and run ahead of extra trains and regular freight trains, and that one train could pass and run ahead of another train of the same class. The original idea was that faster trains should always precede slower trains, which is a good principle. Also, the dispatcher could always order one train to pass and run ahead of another (Form B), and this was considered sufficient. A factor not concerned directly with movement was that if one train passed another on the road, it would get to the terminal first, and its crew would get on the extra board before the crew of the passed train, and so would get out again sooner. This was called a "runaround," and was definitely looked upon as sneaky. The word has entered the current vernacular with a completely different meaning, since the origin has been forgotten. "I got the runaround" means that someone squeezed in before me in line, not that I was sent from person to person.

The new Rule 84, adopted in 1915, merely states that a train shall not start until the proper signal is given, which was the old Rule 85. The new Rule 85 includes the old Rule 93 (later omitted as superfluous), as well as the new rules for passing and running ahead. The new Rule 93, adopted in 1906, is the familar yard limit rule. By "proper signal" is meant a signal specifically from the conductor, and not just anyone who might think it is time to go.

The idea of the yard limit is so useful and general that it is surprising that it only appeared in the rules as late as 1906. Earlier, its place was taken by special instructions and an informal distinction between "main track" and "yard." Indeed, this rulebook mentions yard limit boards as fixed signals, and defines "yard" and "yard engine." On a main track, a train must either be running normally in traffic, or protected by flagmen, and it is under the control of the dispatcher. In a yard, engines move by sight rules at low speed, under the control of a yardmaster. These two realms are distinct; a dispatcher cannot issue instructions to a yard engine (generally speaking), and the yardmaster has nothing to say about the operation of trains on a main track. Of course, there are interfaces between main track and yard that are handled in customary ways. A dispatcher may address a train order to a yardmaster that contains useful information (such as the annulment of a first-class train), but cannot restrict a yard engine. A yardmaster may advise a train when it can proceed, but can give it no rights on the main track.

Under Rule 93, the main track is considered to run not only from station to station, but through yards as well, which was at first probably a novel concept. Within limits defined by yard-limit boards, scheduled first-class trains may have their usual rights and must be protected against by yard engines, but all other trains must move with caution, stopping short of yard movements. This not only permits yard engines to work freely, but a train standing in a yard does not have to be protected by flagmen as it would if standing on main track outside yard limits. This latter was found so convenient that it was a common reason for the establishment of yard limits in places where yard engines were never assigned--really a perversion of the intent of the rule and hearkening back to earlier practices.

Rule 104 on the handling of switches was the same as the Standard Code, and there was also the usually very necessary Rule 104(A) giving further details. The interesting thing is always to note the provisions for an employee who is to line the switch after an expected train passes, to allow his train to leave the siding. There is a rare and unexpected psychological reaction that sometimes causes the employee, who is waiting beside the switchstand with the switch unlocked, to throw the switch at the last moment. This is especially serious with block signals, that may give the approaching train false security, so that it approaches at high speed. To prevent this, it would be enough to make the switch lock shunt the track circuit, so that a clear signal could not be displayed when the switch was unlocked. As far as I know, this was never done, though it would have been simple and effective. It would, of course, be no help outside block signal territory.

The best way to handle this in Rule 104(A) is to require that the switch be kept locked until the expected train has passed, and that the employee stand on the opposite side of the track from the switch stand, or at least no closer than 150 ft to it. In one notable case, the engineman of the waiting train noticed that the employee was violating this rule and tried to move him away with hand signals, but the employee did not move, and threw the switch when a passenger train was approaching at 90 mph only fifty feet away. This employee killed the engine crew of his train and a dozen dining car crew in a dormitory car behind the engine. A subsidiary cause in this case was insufficient supervision on the part of trainmasters. The NKP rulebook requires an employee to stand at least 10 ft from the switchstand, and does not mention that the switch should be kept locked. At the time, there was very little appreciation of this unusual hazard.

The special rules for trainmasters specifically assign them the duty of supervising, examining and disciplining trainmen. Yardmasters also reported to them. The trainmaster is the key officer responsible for safety, and is usually not properly appreciated by his superiors or supported in his efforts by them. For many years, it has been increasingly difficult to attract men of adequate intelligence and character to this important position.

Train Orders

One thing noticed immediately is that the NKP has only one form of Train Order, a Form 19. This seems to be a look into the future, when the use of only one form became the practice on many roads, but that is not the case. "Complete" is given to the NKP Train Order when it has been repeated, so in this respect it is like the Code "19" order and the later single train order form. However, for delivery the train must be stopped, the operator reads the order to the engineman and conductor, and then they must sign the order, after which the initials are sent to the dispatcher (Rule 509), just as for the Code Form 31 order. It is extremely burdensome to get both conductor and engineman in the office when trains are long. Later Code Rules only had the conductor go to the office and sign for the order, later giving a copy to his engineman. As for reading the order, if this is done at all the recipient should read it to the operator, not the other way around. At best, it often leads a hearer to read an order superficially, and consequently to be misled by an improper reading (this has actually caused serious accidents). By this date, reading of the order had been long omitted in the Code. Only the dispatcher is saved some bother by eliminating the "31" order, but everyone else is still burdened. The prescribed signal for transmitting an order is shown simply as, for example, "19 Copy 5" without the direction. This was earlier practice, but by 1913 the Code recommended adding the direction, as "19 East Copy 5." Without the direction, the operator wouls have to display the train order signal in both directions. Actually, the direction was probably given by the dispatcher. Before semaphore train order signals were used, the signal did usually apply in both directions, as it was often just a lamp hung on a peg on the platform.

Although "19" was the familiar signal to clear the line for train orders, the signal "9" was given the same significance in the rule book. This seems to have been the signal to display the train order signal. An operator receiving it would display the signal, and then reply "13," which meant "I understand." In the Code, the reply "SD" for "Stop Displayed" is the recommended response. The train order signal was used to space trains to comply with Rule 91 as well. It was set at Stop (horizontal) until the five-minute clearance had elapsed (10 minutes in fog or snow).

The Clearance Card is still used here only for letting a train by a train order signal at stop, and not as a list of orders delivered. Of course, this was normal practice for the time. The Clearance Card reads: "____Station______191__, Conductor and Engineman No. ___, I have no orders for your train., Signal is out for _____, _____Operator. This does not interfere with or countermand any order you may have received. Conductors and Enginemen must see that the number of their train is entered in the above form correctly. Conductor and Engineman must each have a copy."

The train order form illustration is quite erroneous. At the top, "Train No." appears instead of "Train Order No." Instead of "Date," "From" is used ("From ______19___"). There were two blanks for the order number, one for orders transmitted by telegraph, and one for orders transmitted by telephone. The address line has the incomprehensible "For_____To_____of_____" instead of "To (C&E)______At______." The room for addresses is grossly inadequate as well, but this was also the case with the Code example as well. At the foot of the form, "Received_____M" should probably be "Repeated_____M," but was probably intended as shown. The last line is "Made_____at_____M Rec'd by______Opr" which at least is a lot like the Code "Made_____Time _____Opr." It was very careless to let this bungled illustration appear in the rulebook uncorrected.

When the telephone was used to transmit orders, the address, train and engine numbers, station names and times were to be pronounced, and then spelled. This procedure, seemingly so careful and also so widely practiced, is actually dangerous. If the word is mispronounced, then the mind will usually assume that the spelling merely corresponds to the mispronunciation. For example, if there are two stations Rider and Writer on a line (assigning such similar names is deplorable anyway), and the dispatcher says " at Writer R I D E R" (meaning to have said Rider) the operator may easily write down Writer, oblivious of the different spelling. The chance of error is much smaller if the letters are given first, pronunciation later. The telegraph was completely safe against such misinterpretation.

An engine may be authorized to assume a schedule at its initial station by a train order addressed to it, or by a clearance card. Many initial stations did not have a train order signal, and it was assumed that all crews would call at the office for orders. Earlier, a regular schedule might be assumed on verbal notice that there were no orders for it, but later a clearance card OK'd by the dispatcher was always required. At other stations, a schedule could be assumed or withdrawn only by train order. On the NKP, as quite generally, regular trains were identified by train number and engine number. On the road, the engine number was used to identify trains. This was so important that for extra trains, the engine number was given in words as well as in numbers. Time was always repeated in words.

The wording of the Form A train order was the old one of 1887: ___ and ___ will meet at ___. In the Standard Code, the wording became: ___ will meet ___ at ___ in 1899, and then in 1906 the wording used ever after was adopted: ___ meet ___ at ___. The wording of Form C, however, was the later one of 1899: ___ has right over ___ ___ to ___. The original wording was: ___ has right of track against ___ ___ to ___. "Against" was changed to "over" in 1895, and the current reading adopted in 1899. In this rulebook, there is no Form P, superseding an order or part of an order, as was adopted in 1889. It is still part of Form L, and called "annulling or replacing an order." The words "instead of" are used, but it is not called "superseding" but "replacing." In 1906, the word "will" was generally dropped in Code phrases like "will meet," "will pass," will run extra," and so forth, giving the familiar later reading of these orders. This rulebook generally retains the "will" in these wordings.


There is a heading "Visible Signals." I wonder what an invisible signal would be. Actually, the distinction is with Audible Signals. The color signals are Red, danger or stop; Green, caution or go slowly; and White, safety or go on. Green and white are used to stop trains at flag stations specified in the timetable (otherwise red must be used, Rule 28). Blue is used to protect workmen under or about equipment (Rule 26). These colors were adopted in the original Standard Code of 1887. Yellow is used by road crossing watchmen to stop road traffic (Rule 33). This is all quite standard for the time before green was adopted for clear, which began in the U.S. in 1895 on the New Haven. At this date (1913) green for caution was still quite common, notably on the PRR and NYC. Not until after 1920 did yellow for caution become general. The Standard Code did not recommend colors for caution and safety from 1899 until after 1928. The reason for the change was the great proliferation of bright electric white lights after the turn of the century and with the spread of electric power. The green was changed to be a lot bluer (this could be done easily with electric lights), while the yellow was a good amber. Previously, yellow and green were difficult to distinguish. A green with oil lamps was actually rather dim; the white was much brighter, and this is why it was kept so long. The NKP did not use the adjacent red and green for caution like the CNW, which was sometimes found at this time. Incidentally, blue or purple with oil lamps is so dim that it cannot be used when the signal is to be seen at any distance. Blue for carmen's signals and purple for dwarf signals are specifically chosen for this reason. In the U.S., blue was originally a very common "caution" color.

A red (10-minute) fusee burning on or beside the track must not be passed; a green (5-minute) fusee is a caution signal, and can be thrown off at 5-minute intervals (Rule 11). The times of burning are not explicitly given in the rulebook. A fusee burning between double tracks applies to both tracks. Rule 99(A) specifies this and other rules for using fusees.

The hand, flag and lamp signals of Rule 12, the engine whistle signals of Rule 14, and the air whistle or bell-cord (communicating) signals of Rule 16 are quite standard. At this time, the crossing whistle was - - o o, not - - o -. It was sounded at the whistle post, and the bell rung from there until the crossing was occupied. This was still the case in the Code as late as 1928. The Southern Pacific (for example) used the new signal by 1930, and it became general in that decade. The signal was repeated until the crossing was occupied, and the ringing of the bell was discontinued. Anything waved violently near the track was a stop signal (Rule 11). One torpedo was a stop signal, while two placed no more than 200 ft. apart was a caution signal (Rule 15). Caution torpedoes were usually placed two rail-lengths (66 ft) apart, as stated in Forman. The caution torpedo signal was later eliminated in the Code, but many thought this a mistake. Torpedoes and fusees are extremely effective complements to flags and lamps. Note that the indications of communicating signals are different when running and when stopped, that the lengths of the sounds are immaterial, and one sound is not used (you get one sound if the train parts or the communicating pipe is cut in). For example, o o means start, if stopped, and stop at once, if running. There is no communicating signal for acknowlegement; this must be done by hand or lamp.

Rule 99 on the protection of trains is relatively specific. The basic idea is that the flagman should go back until he can see a train approaching at one mile from his train, but no less than 1000 ft. If there are curves, grades or obscurity, the required distance is 1/2 mile, 2640 ft. When recalled, he places two torpedoes on the rail as a caution signal. The distances are also specified in terms of poles, a very good idea. Originally, there were 36 poles per mile on the NKP, so that 1000 ft was 7 poles, and a half-mile 18 poles. A common spacing was 40 poles per mile; 36 or 40 poles is just adequate. It is mentioned in the rulebook that telegraph lines are being renewed at 60 poles per mile, which gives a very sturdy line with an 88 ft. span. Then, 1000 ft is about 12 poles and a half-mile is 30 poles. It was very effective to put signs on poles as mile posts, and to specify locations as miles plus so many poles (it is not stated if the NKP did this).

Train Signals

Train signals are the flags and lamps carried for various purposes by engines and trains. This rulebook shows the general practice at the time, with perhaps a few peculiarities of the NKP. An important train signal is the markers, which designate the end of the train and show that it is complete. They are always carried in pairs, so that if one falls off, the other remains. By day, markers were green flags carried high on either side of the last car. By night, it was a little more complicated. The marker lamp had four lenses: two green on adjacent sides, red and white on the others. There were right-hand and left-hand markers, so that the colors were GGWR and GGRW (the lenses could have been on slides to make this easier). Normally, red was shown to the rear, green to front and side, and the white lens was turned inwards. When in the clear on a siding, the lamps were rotated to show green to rear and side, white to the front, and the red lens turned inwards. The markers on a caboose were shown on either side of the cupola (not the end of the body), and there was an additional light centered on the top of the cupola showing red to the rear normally, or green when clear on a siding. It was recognized that foreign roads often used extinguished marker lamps as daytime markers instead of green flags, and this was permitted. It was also mentioned that permanent red markers were sometimes installed on engines, and these were to be used only when the engines were running light.

The headlight was displayed by night, whether the engine was running forwards or backwards. The rules do not say what was done if the engine was running backwards at the head of a train, but in that case a white lamp was carried high and centered on the tender. When the train was in the clear on a siding, the headlight was to be concealed (for an oil headlight, the light was left on to display the illuminated engine number). This applied whether the train was meeting another or being passed. Later, of course, the headlight was extinguished only at meeting points. Yard engines could be provided with headlights at both ends, in which case they were both displayed at night. If there was no rear headlight, two white lights were displayed high on the end of the tender. Cars being pushed by night displayed a white light, shown on the running board of a freight car or on the platform of a passenger car.

By day, signals for an extra train were two white flags on the pilot beam, and signals for a following section were two green flags in the same place (classification signals). When the engine was running backwards at the end of a train, markers were two green flags on either side of the headlight. There is no diagram for an engine moving backwards by day at the end of a train, but presumably the markers were green flags on either side of the headlight. Green and white flags on the pilot beam were always classification signals.

By night, classification lamps were added on each side of the smokebox. The flags on the pilot beam remained, however. Marker lamps were placed on the pilot beam in front of the flags (if any), showing the usual colors, and the green marker flags were removed. If the engine was moving forward at the head of a train, the usual case, this meant simply that classification lamps were added at night and taken down in the morning. When engines were coupled, only the leading engine would display classification signals.

Fixed Signals

Fixed signals and the signal diagrams are a very interesting part of the rulebook. Slow boards and resume speed boards are included, lettered in black on a rectangular white background. The slow board diagram says SLOW 6 miles per hour in two lines, and the resume speed board says RESUME SPEED in two lines. The main track switch stand shows a white bar with round ends and a lamp showing a white light for Switch Closed, and a pierced red spectacle with a lamp showing a red light for Switch Open. Of course, "closed" means lined for the main track, and "open" means lined for divergence. A crossing gate is shown with an elevated red lamp (by night) and a wooden lattice smashboard. The smashboard is used as evidence that an errant train did not stop short of a closed gate. The tilting target signal is shown with red lamps hoisted to each end by night, and a bar with red dots at each end. The horizontal aspect is depicted, the inclined aspects shown by dashed lines. The NKP ran in territory where these signals, usually called "crossing targets," were common.

Hall enclosed disc signals are illustrated. The home signals show white and red, while the distant signals show white and green. These were apparently not used as automatic block signals. The signal number is shown at the bottom of the case.

Home signals are shown as upper or lower quadrant, with square-ended red blades with a white stripe. Proceed is shown with a white light by night, and the blade either vertical for upper-quadrant, inclined for lower-quadrant. Stop is shown by a horizontal blade in either case, with a red light. There is no 45° aspect for the upper-quadrant signals, though three roundels are shown in the spectacle. Dwarf signals are illustrated as low lower-quadrant signals with small square-end blades like the home signals. Proceed is indicated by an inclined blade and a white light. Stop is indicated by a horizontal blade and a purple light. The reason for the purple light is so it is not visible at large distances to be confused with a high stop signal.

Distant signals are shown with green fishtail blades, with black chevrons. This very unsuitable coloring was quite general, and the NKP was in no way out of line. The lower-quadrant distants showed a white light and inclined blade for Proceed, and a horizontal blade and a green light for Proceed with Caution. As with the home signals, the familiar US&S continuous-light signals with three roundels are shown; of course, in normal use only two roundels were effective. The restrictive color would be displayed unless the arm was fully in the less restrictive position. These signals would be sufficient only for very simple interlockings, with the dwarf signals used for diverging routes.

The upper quadrant distant signals were, very surprisingly, three-position. They sported the same green and black blades. When the blade was vertical, and the light was white, the indication was Proceed. When the blade was at 45° and the light was green, the indication was Proceed with Caution. Remarkably, when the blade was horizontal the light was red, and the indication was Stop. This seems unique for a distant signal! The only explanation I can imagine is that these signals were used on track-circuited track, and were dual-controlled by the signalman at the interlocking and by the track circuit as an automatic block signal. When this signal displayed Stop, the automatic block signal in the rear would display Approach, and it would mean that the track circuit in advance was occupied. The usual practice was simply to use an automatic block signal at such a location, but NKP worked out a novel approach. These signals are not otherwise mentioned in the Rules. This aspect may have originated when existing interlocking signals were taken into the automatic block system.

Automatic block signals were 3-position upper quadrant, with red pointed blades with a white chevron. A vertical arm and white light indicated Proceed, a horizontal arm with a red light indicated Stop. After stopping and waiting 2 minutes, the train could proceed with caution (at restricted speed) to the next signal. The arm at 45° and a green light meant Proceed prepared to stop at the next signal, passenger trains at no more than 25 mph, freight trains at 12 mph. This aspect would later be called Approach, and the speeds would now be called Medium Speed. It is explicity mentioned that an approach aspect always precedes a stop aspect. Signals were identified by their distance from Buffalo in miles and tenths. Odd tenths were used for westbound signals, even tenths for eastbound signals. There were concrete posts at fouling points and overlap ends. As usual, automatic block signals in no way modified the movement of trains under timetable and train orders, but were an additional safeguard. Indicators were provided at main track switches not in the immediate vicinity of signals to show if the block was occupied. There was no instruction to wait after opening a main track switch, in case a train entered the block just as the switch was thrown on a clear indicator. Enginemen were instructed to make certain their trains were past the clearance point, or else to send out a flagman. If they overran a Stop signal, they were instructed to back in order to clear the block in advance, and then to report themselves to the Superintendent. There is a reference to "precaution required by the rules," which at least is having a flagman on the ground behind the backing train. This is not well thought out. Full compliance with Rule 99 would mean whistling out a flagman, waiting until he got out, backing, then recalling him. All this would take much longer thant he 2-minute wait otherwise. We may safely assume that the train proceeded after 2 minutes without backing, or worse, backed immediately then waited 2 minutes. In such situations, it was tacitly assumed that the block signals would protect the train, which is, in fact, a very good assumption.

In some cases, the train must not be allowed to proceed after stopping, as at interlockings and crossings. The NKP took special care in this case. The semaphore blade was still square-ended, but is not illustrated with a white stripe, and is solid red. Below it is a small horizontal arm with a red light, and the two lights are in the same vertical line. This was a fixed arm, no more actually than a red marker light. The indications are the same as for the usual automatic block signal at these "two-arm signals" except for the stop. This action of adding a red light to make an aspect "absolute" was rather commonly adopted, though it is a faulty concept. If this red light should fail, then the aspect would become less restrictive. Of course, one should take the red light as no more than an expensive substitute for a sign with an A or a P on it (the P was a peculiarity of the D&RGW, where it meant "positive," the same as everyone else's "absolute." Apparently, a red aspect was not thought positive enough). The best way to handle this was shown by the PRR, where a marker light made a Stop aspect a Stop and Proceed. A number plate on the signal post identified a Stop-and-Proceed signal on many lines, as did a pointed blade instead of a square-end blade. With semaphores, the shape of the blade would be enough, but this is of no use with color-light signals.

The train-order signal was a three-position upper quadrant signal with a round-ended red blade, illustrated as two arms on a single post, for the two directions. The vertical arm and a white light indicated Proceed (no orders). A 45° arm and a green light indicated Stop for Orders. We have noted that the NKP Form 19 order required a stop for the reading ritual and the taking of signatures. A horizontal arm with a red light indicated Stop, and was used to space trains according to Rule 91. The signal diagrams show the outline of the arm for the other direction in dotted lines, and in the same postions. One may assume that this did not mean that the same aspect was always shown in the two directions. There were separate lamps for the two directions. This is a very unusual case of a signal with two different stop aspects. In automatic block signal territory, at the entrance to sidings where the train order signal was ahead, it was preceded by an advance train order signal arm below the block signal arm (the rulebook refers to "passing sidings," a term not defined). This arm had a round-ended red blade, and its light was on the opposite side of the post. When vertical and with a white light, it indicated No Train Orders, when at 45° and with a green light, it indicated Train Orders. Of course, the upper arm could just show Approach, and the rulebook says that this was indeed done at other locations. It is not clear from the rules why the advance train order signal was needed. The legend for the illustration of the aspect reads: "Color, Green Light Staggered (opposite side of pole). Below, a White, Green or Red Light." Of course, the first period should be a comma, and the second comma should vanish.

An operator was permitted to clear the signal when he identified the approaching train and had no orders for it. Engine numbers could be used for this purpose. A clearance card was used to permit a train to pass the horizontal Stop aspect after the train had stopped. A better practice was to hold the train order signal at stop whenever there were orders, and to clear all trains with a Clearance Card. However, this was only convenient after the Clearance Card could be delivered without stopping the train, which was not yet done on the NKP.

It is remarkable that there are only a few special rules for the automatic block signals, Rules BS1 to BS14, but no rules at all for interlocking signals or the operation of the manual block. Block signal rules were adopted by the ARA in 1896, and interlocking rules in 1897, so there could be little excuse for not including them in this rulebook, other than a certain blockheaded ignorance. To be fair, Standard Code automatic block system rules were under development at this time, but had been improved. Originally, these rules were also given small numbers, but by this time were in the 500 series. The rulebook is signed, incidentally, by A. W. Johnston, General Manager, who probably had very little to do with its creation, but was nonetheless responsible.

Rule 207, for passenger conductors, is remarkably kind: "Conductors are expected to render to all travelers such aid and information as they may need, bearing in mind that many matters which are plain to the experienced, need explanation to those who are not so, especially to the poorer and humbler classes, most of whom are ignorant of our customs, many of whom are unacquainted with our language, as strangers in a strange land, they should command the sympathy of every one." This does not sound much like a typical passenger conductor, unfortunately.

Telegraph and Operators

It is clear that the telephone is already in general use, but that the telegraph is generally still used for transmitting train orders. The rule book contains some interesting provisions that give us a look at how the telegraphic communication was maintained, and the employees that were involved. The Superintendent of Telegraph (S/T) was the general officer responsible for telegraphs. The Chief Dispatcher of a division was responsible for the operation of the telegraphs on his division, and supervised the dispatchers, operators and linemen. He was admonished not to allow unnecessary use of the telegraph, to see that the lines were kept in good order, that the train dispatchers made proper written transfers when relieved, and that a book of instructions for train dispatchers was maintained.

Dispatchers had their usual task of moving trains, but were instructed to keep a record (train sheet) showing times of departure of trains from reporting offices, the duty times of dispatchers and operators, and any incidents occurring. Station Agents transacted the business of the company, and were responsible for the good order of their stations, which included seeing that operators were on duty, and that they provided themselves with the proper signals (flags, lamps, fusees and torpedoes). At small stations, the operator may have assumed the responsibilities of station agent, but this is not specifically mentioned. In any case, the duties of the operator respecting train movement took precedence over any station duties. The station agent had no say in such matters.

Telegraph linemen reported to the Superintendent of Telegraph and also to the Chief Dispatcher. The line assigned to a lineman was inspected once per week. A lineman was assigned to a station, to which he reported 30 minutes before each train was due to handle any emergencies. Otherwise, he was to tell the operator where he was to be found. The lineman was to keep a diagram of the lines in his charge. He looked after the main batteries, and any local batteries assigned to him. He was to keep zinc and copper refuse separate. He was instructed to provide himself with the proper tools, and to ask frequently about the condition of the circuits. After repairing a break, he was to report location and cause to the S/T. A regular monthly report was to be made to the S/T.

Hours of duty for operators were already controlled. At day/night offices (where the work would be heavy) 9 hours were the maximum. At day- or night-only offices, 13 hours in any 24 was the maximum. In emergencies, these times could be extended by as much as 4 hours on 3 or fewer days in a week. Three operators were assigned to a day/night office, and one had to be on duty at any time. The day operator was in charge. Operators at a day- or night- only station had to leave notice of their residence, so they could be available in an emergency. The operator was to stay in the office when a train was at the station, except for business with the train. The telegraph was always the operator's primary duty. A record of arrivals and departures was to be kept. A train was considered to have arrived when it was stopped at the station, or clear on a siding. A train was considered to have left when it was 300 ft beyond the office, or its last car was on the main line.

An operator would keep flagging signals handy; a number of eventualities would require their use. He was to observe the rear of trains for markers. If a marker was missing, he was to report the fact to the next office in the direction the train was moving, so that the train could be stopped and the reason ascertained. It was not mentioned that he should also notify the next office in the rear, since if the train had broken in two, part of it would still be left on the line. Actually, if it were a freight train, the waycar would probably still be there and the markers only forgotten. If it were a passenger train, any break-in-two would be immediately noticed. With air brakes, a break-in-two became no longer such a hazard, and no markers was nearly always forgotten markers.

When one operator relieved another, a transfer of outstanding orders was to be made on Form 444. This is a very important duty. The dispatcher should be aware of this (he had to record it) and if there were any outstanding orders, make sure the relieving operator was aware of them (not mentioned in the rulebook). The operator was to inform the dispatcher in case of fog or snow; some offices were designated to make regular weather reports. Taking on students at the office required the permission of the S/T. The office was to be kept private to ensure the security of the messages (both railway and Western Union). Inexperienced operators were to be cut some slack, and speed of transmission adjusted to their capabilities.

The operator usually cared for his local batteries, which were assumed to be gravity cells. They were to be clean and dry, with liquid over the zinc and the blue liquid over the copper but not in contact with the zinc. Every now and then some of the clear solution on top was to be dipped off and replaced by water, and copper sulphate added in small amounts as necessary. The copper sulphate was called "vitrol" in the rule book, which should have been "vitriol." The battery was to be renewed preferably in periods of light traffic, and scrap zinc and copper given to the lineman.

Before opening his key to transmit, the operator was instructed to adjust his relay. The reason for this was to detect if the line was actually in use, but the relay set to be too sensitive, especially in wet weather. The spring would be adjusted so that the relay would just pick up with the existing line current. It would be easy to see if anyone was transmitting in that case. If the line went open, then grounding it on one side or the other of the relay would detect on which side of the office the break was. When current was obtained, the operator would then give notice of the break. The ground wire would be used only so long as it was necessary to make a report, or if instructed to do so. If the break was nearby, and the lineman was not available, the operator would inform the section foreman to see if anything could be done. Every effort was made to eliminate a break, since it took the whole length of the line out of service.

In thunderstorms, the operator might want to "cut out" to protect his instruments from atmospheric electricity. If you see St. Elmo's fire around the wires and instrument, this might be a good idea. He should report his intentions to the dispatcher before doing so, and then cut out for as short a time as necessary. When closing an office, it would be cut out, and the operator was instructed to make sure the contacts were clean and effective. Operators were not permitted to use strange equipment, or to run additional wiring in the office. Any such work was the job of the lineman.

Operators were instructed to sign after the first call, and not to call more than four times without signing. To "sign" means in this case to give the office call. Each operator also had his personal call. When a message had been received, they were to give "O.K." then their own call followed by the office call. Messages to be sent after 4 pm were to be put in a Form 422 envelope and sent by train mail, if they could arrive by 8 am the next morning. Copies of messages by general officers were to be put in envelopes and sent to Cleveland as a record. All messages were to be kept strictly private. Operators handled Western Union messages in accordance with the rules of that company. Train orders were handled as required by the rules, completely distinctly from messages.

The precedence of a message was determined by a signal sent in advance. Highest precedence was "time," then "wire," used for these special purposes. "Wire" was used to test the lines, of course. Then came "9" (-..-)for train orders, "91" for the President, General Manager and Superintendent of Transportation (general officers), "93" for the Division Superintendent and Trainmaster (division officers). After this came ordinary messages and Western Union traffic. Contention for the wire was called "reprehensible in the extreme." If you were continually broken when you were in the middle of a message, it was recommended to send "8" and then see if the interruption stopped. If it did not, then you would wait until the line was clear, and also make a report to the S/T.

Authorized numerical abbreviations were: "1" (.--.) wait a minute; "4" where (sic) shall I go ahead?; "5" anything for me?; "7" I have business for you; "8" adjust your relay; "12" how do you understand?; "13" I understand; "18" what is the trouble?; "25" I am busy on another circuit; "34" for you and others; "134" who is at the key?. The signal "19" was used before train orders, after the line was cleared and the train order signal displayed with the signal "9". When a train order contained several movements, each movement was a separate paragraph, the paragraph sign (----) preceding each paragraph.

Time was sent daily at 11 am to all offices. The time signals originated at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and were probably transmitted automatically. After the signal "time" (- .. -- .) to clear the line, at 10.59 am ticks were sent every second for 55 seconds. Then there were 5 seconds of silence, and at 11.00 the letter "I" (..) was sent every two seconds for 50 seconds. There were 10 seconds of silence, and the circuit was closed at exactly 11.01 am. At that time the operator would record how many seconds his clock was fast or slow. Clocks could be regulated to run a little faster or slower so they would keep close to the actual time. They were rarely actually reset, except when they had stopped. Clocks were wound regularly. This telegraphic time made certain that all clocks were properly synchronized.


N.Y., C. & St.L. Railroad Company, Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Transportation Department, To take effect 1 February 1913.

H. W. Forman, Rights of Trains on Single Track (New York: The Railroad Gazette, 1904).

The Standard Code of the American Railway Association (New York: American Railway Association, January 1928).

I. S. Haberman, The Van Sweringens of Cleveland (Cleveland: The Western Reserve Historical Society, 1979). An excellent account of the rise and fall of the Van Sweringen railway empire, and its complex financial negotiations.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 13 April 2004
Last revised 16 April 2004