The "X" Response

Its purpose was to avoid holding the train helped while the order was repeated for the train restricted


Most train order forms had a line between the heading and the body cryptically reading: X...Opr...M. This line was little used, and in latter days many companies, such as the Rock Island and the Pennsylvania, omitted it. We give an example below in which it was used on the Pennsylvania in 1930. It was there to save time in a special case, and has its origin in the rule that a train order is null and void until it is repeated. When the wire fails, if a train order has not been repeated and acknowledged by the dispatcher, it is simply discarded. There were good reasons for this requirement.

Originally, rights were taken away from a superior train only after the conductor and engineman had signed an order, and the names had been transmitted to the dispatcher. Only then could an inferior train be helped. This was a very time-consuming and onerous procedure. It gradually became realized that a train order signal was very effective in holding a train, so that later a repeated "31" order, or a complete "19" order, was considered sufficient to do so. Most companies eventually merged the two kinds of order in a single train order form that was essentially the old "19" order.

Let's now suppose that we have an important but inferior train impatiently waiting for help to proceed, when an expected superior train has met with some unexpected, sudden delay. Perhaps the help is given considerably in advance, while the dispatcher happens to have the train at an open office. The order is transmitted, all offices concerned copying it at the same time. Instead of waiting for the operator who will make delivery to the superior train to repeat the order, he requests this operator to make the "X" response by sending "X" after transmitting the order. The operator then sends "37 to no 8, X, BDP MA" where BDP are his initials, and MA his office call. On the train order form, he fills in his initials and the time in the line provided. The order is now alive, and will hold No 8 whatever happens. The dispatcher now hears the repetition of the order for the inferior train, gives complete, and can then get back to BDP, the "X" response having done its job.

It was an abuse to use the "X" response simply to hold a train, or to hold a train before an order had actually been transmitted. Its sole purpose was to save time. In other emergencies, there were better ways to handle the situation that would not be subject to question. After an operator had been warned of a train order by, say, "19 east copy 3," he would display his train order signal at stop for eastbound trains, if it were not already at stop, as was the best practice, and as long as the wire was good would never let a train by until the address of the promised order was known. Should the wire fail, however, he had insufficient reason to hold trains, and the dispatcher would be aware of this as well. The "X" response guaranteed holding the train, wire or no wire.

The "X" response was formally adopted as part of the Standard Code on 12 April 1899 by the ARA. The above interpretation of Rule 212 was that of the Standard Code. Individual roads may well have had their own divergent practices, as is well known. The author would like to know about any actual uses of the "X" response.

The ICC report of the investigation of the accident on the St. Louis Division of the Pennsylvania at Macksville, IN on 14 August 1930 tells a story in which the X response played a part, as well as revealing very bad and careless practice. This accident was a head-on collision of eastbound Train 26 and Extra 6776 West about a mile east of Farrington, Il, just on the state border, late in the afternoon. The 5.3 miles between Macksville and Farrington was a single manual block in otherwise automatic block territory. It was left as manual block since it was expected to double it soon. We can assume that Macksville was the end of two main tracks, just west of Terre Haute. Macksville and Farrington were open block stations, and Farrington was the junction of the Peoria Branch.

Extra 6776, 95 cars pulled by a new M1a, encountered Train 26, 10 cars pulled by a K4s, about a mile east of Farrington. Both engines, and several cars at the front of each train, were derailed and strewn about. A dining-car waiter was fatally injured in the crash, but there were no other fatalities, and only 29 injuries. Train 26 was moving at 70 mph, Extra 6776 at 35 mph, when the trains sighted each other, but emergency applications reduced the speed at collision to much less. Both trains had entered the block under Clear Block signals, and Extra 6776 held an order handed up at Macksville to meet Train 26 at Farrington, while Train 26 had no orders. Both the train order and the manual block system had failed due to malfeasance of the dispatcher and the signalmen at the block posts.

Dispatcher Wilson had addressed Order No 284 to Eden (the open office to the west of Farrington), Farrington and Macksville, that apparently read: "Train 26 Eng 3772 meet Extra 6776 West at Farrington." Operator Hasfurder at Farrington immediately X'ed the order after it had been transmitted, understanding that it was intended to hold Train 26 until Extra 6776 could arrive. The ICC examiner makes some noise that Wilson did not request this, but this is inconsequential, since he obviously intended that the order be X'ed. Then, of course, Macksville repeated the order, received Complete, and handed it up to Extra 6776. Traffic was busy; as this was going on. A heavy Extra 6778 East was approaching Farrington, headed for double track at Macksville. Unless it made good progress, Train 19 would be delayed. As soon as it cleared at that point, Extra 6776 had to get to Farrington in a hurry to avoid delaying No 26. Wilson even sent a message to this effect to Extra 6776. We do not hear what happened at Eden. The ICC report is hazy here, and I'd guess that No 26 got by Eden before the order could be repeated.

This may have been an attempt to use a middle order, but it misfired, and Order No 284 then contained a serious error. It should have read: "Train 26 Eng 3772 get this order and meet Extra 6776 West at Farrington." In his evidence, Wilson could not see the use in this phrasing. This meant that either he was not told, or was too dull to figure it out. The ICC examiner was probably not too clear himself, but knew it was contrary to rules. We know the reason is that No 26, not expecting to be stopped or to meet a train, might well move beyond the initial switch before it can be stopped. Therefore, Extra 6776 should approach Farrington with this in mind and stay well clear until No 26 has arrived. Of course, this was not material to the case, since No 26 did not receive the order at all.

Hasfurder committed a series of fatal blunders. Instead of copying 3, as instructed, he only copied 1 to avoid preparing a new pad of order forms, knowing that the order would be annulled before it was delivered, once Extra 6776 had arrived and was on the siding. Instead of putting the X'ed order in some prominent safe place, he tucked it under his block pad. Most seriously, instead of immediately placing his train order signal (the block signal on the Pennsylvania, with a yellow flag) at stop, he went outside to watch Extra 6778 go by. Meanwhile, the X'd order was blown out a window by the wind, and Hasfurder forgot it. No 26 thundered by at 70 mph, the block signal at clear. (We will get to the block errors later). Putting the signal at stop and handing up a clearance card to Extra 6778 was the only safe thing to do, but he did not do it, since he could easily tell the difference between an M1a with a freight train and a K4s with a passenger train, and did not want to delay Extra 6778. The train order system failed because an order was not delivered (or, more precisely, because the X response was not properly backed up.)

Fuller, the signalman at Macksville, exchanged block messages with Hasfurder in some such form that Fuller thought he was getting the block for Extra 6776, and Hasfurder thought he was getting the block for No 26. Just how they managed this is not clear from the report, but it does mention that they discussed just what time to put down in their block records for Extra 6778 (Hasfurder) and Extra 6776 (Fuller) out of block. Each communication should have been in the correct wording, and recorded at once in the block record. Each man apparently heard what he expected to hear, and both men displayed Clear Block as a result. Exactly how they managed to do this would be fascinating to know. The ICC report should have included the block record, but did not do so, which is not an intelligent omission. Of course, both signalmen might have doctored the block record to the best advantage, but this would easily be discovered through inconsistencies. What the signalmen said to the examiner is probably not what happened. Since this page is about the X response, we shall only mention this much about the mistakes in manual block operation.

On the Pennsylvania, the train order and the manual block are meant to be a double safeguard, and generally they were. However, two half-measures do not make a whole, as this accident shows. There were, actually, rather few of these simultaneous failures, but they make a very illuminating study.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 15 May 1999
Last revised 29 March 2002