If trains don’t toot their own horn they’re deadly

Q: I’m curious why trains use a Morse code signal when approaching crossings.

A: For anyone confused by that question, next time you’re waiting at a railroad crossing listen to the train’s horn. It’s a long-long-short-long signal. That corresponds with the letter Q in Morse code. What’s the connection? Probably none, but that’s not interesting, is it?

The most common of several explanations (none of which I believe) is that back in the 1800s, whenever Queen Victoria rode in a steamship, the captain would use a horn equivalent to the Morse code Q to warn other ships to yield the right-of-way to the queen. When trains started using whistles, they adopted the signal for Q when crossing roadways. Given that America was barely past half a century since rejecting England’s authority when Queen E took the throne, didn’t have a queen of their own (to state the obvious), and at least until 1915 used a different signal, I find this explanation highly suspect.

Most likely, it’s just a coincidence. Before radio communication, locomotive engineers used a dozen or so signals to communicate their intentions. With so many signals, all using short and longhorn sounds, nearly all of them match up with some letters in Morse code.

But I’m not here to talk about train whistle trivia. For nearly 200 years, train whistles have been a tool to warn folks to stay off the tracks. Engineers originally used a mouth-blown trumpet to warn people of the oncoming train. According to legend (and more trivia) after a farmer who didn’t hear the horn lost his horse, cart, 50 pounds of butter and 80 dozen eggs, the railway commissioned an instrument maker to develop a better horn, originally called a steam trumpet.

By 1938, the Association of American Railroads had adopted the long-long-short-long signal for rail crossings. But whatever the horn pattern, the goal is to warn people well in advance that a train is coming. In 2021, 236 people were killed at highway-rail grade crossings in the U.S. Without proper warnings the lives lost would likely be even greater. Back in the 1980s Florida passed a law that banned nighttime train whistles on some crossings that had flashing lights and gates. By 1990 increased fatalities at train crossings captured the Federal Railroad Administration’s attention. Their analysis concluded that banning the whistle had resulted in nearly triple the crashes where the ban was enacted.

The FHA issued an emergency order requiring trains to sound their whistle.

In 2021 there were 2,145 vehicle-train collisions at railroad crossings that resulted in those 236 deaths. More than one in 10 people involved in a collision with a train did not survive. Compare that to the 144,149 vehicle crashes in Washington in 2021, resulting in 670 deaths. Less than one in 200 people died in crashes that didn’t include trains.

Every life is a tragic loss, and even one is too many, but the survivability of a crash improves greatly if a train is not involved. It takes about a mile for a 100-car freight train traveling at 55 mph to come to a stop. By the time an engineer can see a car or pedestrian on the tracks it’s too late. I’ve often said that we all share a responsibility for safety on the road. That’s true but, when it comes to trains, the person operating the locomotive can only do so much. If you’re crossing the tracks, it’s up to you to do it safely.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic safety column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.