Train Orders In The U.S.A.

Before reading, please note this is not intended to be a comprehensive history.
My intent is simply to give enough background that most folks will have a decent idea
for why and what they are seeing displayed here, in such as my TOUR pages.


What follows is of course, COPYRIGHTED to me. My thanks to all of those
out in web land, who are excerpting or outright just taking what I've written,
as their own. At least your doing so acknowledges my efforts.

From what I have seen of other sites, almost all are quite incomplete,
or contain misinformation. Or the writer wouldn't know a train order, if
it could sneak up behind them and kick them in their caboose!


This page is the result of my growing up in a family with many railroaders.
Thus I know or knew many of these special people. Also, from my time working in the industry.
It is compiled through personally seeing Dispatchers, Agents, Operators, Telegraphers and Levermen
actually doing this type of work. From my interviewing those same persons I'd watched.
Many of whom were, and still are life long friends. Some of them even contributed to my collection.
(For which I am eternally grateful!) It is sheer joy to me, being able to hold in my own hands
and look at train orders. They are works of a lost skill and incredible historical documents!


On To Some History!

During the earliest years of railroad operations, there was no sure way to allow movement of trains,
between stations. Signals as we've come to know them, were far off in the future. As were radios
and other forms of electric communications. Resulting from this, there were many nasty accidents.

A need was obvious for much better control of individual train movements. With telegraph wires
spreading across North America, a first company adapted this device for railroading control.
On September 22, 1851, the Erie Railroad began dispatching their trains by wired messages.

Digressing for just a moment here, I would point out there were two types of Morse code.
International, and that used by US railroads. The same at some points, they also differed in
many ways. Also coming into use in the later 1800s, was the "Phillips" code- A method of
abbreviating words, or groups of wordings, speeding up transmission of information.

At the receiving end, there needed to be a way of recording these incoming instructions then
passing them along to train crews. Thus was born the Train Order.

Earliest examples I have seen, came on papers of many sizes and shapes. Some of these
chosen papers did not seem to allow writing to carry through decently. Copies below that top one,
became lighter and lighter. This would seem to have been the origin of using a thinner, tissue type
or an onion skin paper. A need for the multiple carbon copies required, generally at least three,
to all come through heavily enough, so that all could be read with ease. This thinner paper was not
very durable. It did not stand up to much abuse. Some described it as being flimsy. That nickname stuck

After World War II, freight traffic levels dropped. With the automobile competing,
and air travel entering a period of very swift growth, rail passenger travel continued a decline.
Radios came into ever greater use. Signals were upgraded many times. Thus, many train order jobs
could be and were abolished. Those offices and depots closing forever. By the late 1970's, numbers
of issuing offices had now dropped quite significantly. Many short lines had long since stopped
using flimsies. Some Class I companies, and other railroads had changed to forms which were
still received by an operator, but were then duplicated on various types of mechanical equipment.

After the early 1980's, changes were coming to the old operating rules. These were soon replaced by
the ("GCOR") General Code of Operating Rules. The train order was on it's last legs. On January 16, 1988,
the Burlington Northern Railroad issued it's last train order- This occurred at Tacoma, Washington. Other
companies, which had not already stopped using train orders, would very shortly follow.

The flimsy has now been replaced by computer generated or crew copied forms. Some are still referred
to as "train orders", but these are not at all the same as the real flimsy. Most are known by various names
such as Track Warrant, Track Permit Control System, assorted "Bulletins" and Manual Block Clearances.

It's interesting to note something here- Should our modern electronics and satellite system ever
fail, (which IS possible), trains may be unable to move. And with each passing day, there remain fewer
and fewer of those who knew how to do it with a simple, time proven system of paper.

A classic era has ended.


The Train Order

The train order was a safety device which contained information instructing concerned persons, or
parties of conditions along the line they'd travel, or how one or more trains were to be operated. These
were transmitted from a dispatcher to a line side location- A train order office, a depot, larger city
station, tower or block station, where it was copied by an agent, operator, telegrapher, leverman or in
later years simply by a clerk. Originally this was done via telegraph, which was later supplanted by
telephone and finally modern electronics such as radio, fax and then computers.

Standards for train order use varied from railroad to railroad. Basically, what you first needed
were some set rules. Within the company, those were law. They covered safety, signals, forms of train
orders and much more. These were often published in a book form and also some could be found as part of
Special Instructions in an Employee Timetable. This book was referred to as a "Code of Operating Rules."
Where several railroads in a region operated and interacted, they might also adopt it as a group. A couple
of these multi-railroad examples were the ("UCOR") Uniform Code of Operating Rules and the ("CCOR")
Consolidated Code of Operating Rules.

From those rules, railroads could then issue an operating schedule, which would come out in the form
of an Employee Time Table. Such a time table might, or might not also contain some Special Instructions
for operations- These were at times published separately. Alterations to their rules or employee timetable
could be made by issuing a bulletin. Or a train order. Which a train order could modify all the above or
supersede other train orders.

How many orders might copied at any one time? Well, that would have depended upon what a specific
dispatcher deemed necessary. He could have one operator copying, or multiple stations, the same order
all at once. For any order, the only limitation was how many sheets of a form and carbons was an operator
able to impress through, and still maintain a clearly readable image. At minimum, if simply issuing
instructions to a single station's telegrapher, one order might be transmitted. That could annul an
existing order, tell them to hold a train at their depot, if in control of multiple tracks, which one
to use when advancing a train and more. From this point, the next number was three, if a single train
was addressed. One each for the conductor, the engineer and the operator's station file. The copied
numbers went up from this point. If a specific instruction needed to be used by many trains, or
over a period of time, it might be recopied.

The Train Order Office

What constituted a train order office? Actually, there might be no permanent structure at all! If there
was need of a place to copy orders, on a temporary basis, they might use whatever was handy. I knew
one operator who sat atop a boulder with a telegraph key, for several days at a wreck site. Other
times a personal or company vehicle was employed. Or a telephone booth. Whatever was handy, they
might use. If warranted, they could even bring in a temporary shack via flat car.

More permanently, they'd have a structure at a site just for the purpose of copying train orders. If
at a remote location, it could include living quarters. These buildings could be quite small. Perhaps one
room of less than ten feet by ten feet in size. (Hopefully that person inside did not suffer from
claustrophobia!) Or a depot with attached freight house and bedrooms upstairs. An office tucked away
inside a large city union station, a yard office, at a freight house, the roundhouse, or in an
interlocking tower. Wherever they were needed...

Train Order Signals

These could be none- Generally, where none could be seen, was at a terminal point. (Also known
as an "initial station.") Crews at these sites picked up their orders inside the depot, before
beginning their run.

Then came a simple flag, or hand held lantern. Common in the very earliest days, later often used
at places such as a temporary block station. A site such as this could often be found near where
some sort of work was ongoing: New track being placed into service, maintenance, flood or accident
damage repairs, signals being changed, etc.

Moving up the scale to more permanent equipment, came the ever famous rope and ball system. An
approaching train crew would look to see if the ball was low, which meant stop, or raised up, which
meant proceed. In the raised position, it was high- Hence came the term still used today for clear
signal, proceed: "Highball!"

There was a two position paddle, with or without a lantern atop, known as a "Swift" style
signal. (Some folks mangle this as "Smith." Swift is the correct name.) This was mounted either on
a timber extending from the depot wall or roof, or on a metal framed support arm. Upon those
paddles they would sometimes hook a yellow panel or flag to indicate train orders awaiting.

Finally, was a separate mast which held either upper or lower quadrant semaphore arms. These
were operable in either two or three positions, from within a depot, or even in a few rare sites
outside. Which the latter must have been no fun at all in extreme weather conditions- Examples I
witnessed in person were secured by a switch lock, which had to be removed before arms could be
operated. (Meanwhile the operator stood in rain, wind or snow and ice...) Last and later in time,
was bladeless 2 or 3 position color lighted signal.

Train Order Delivery

After copying, an order was then hand delivered to the appropriate passing trains. This was done
through employing the famous "hoop" device. Made from bamboo, or large doweling this was a wooden
"9" shape, which a trainman could poke their arm into as they sped past. The process of handing it
up, and being caught was known as "hooping up" orders. This was not the most comfortable way to do so,
resulting in more than a few bruises. They'd retrieve their paperwork from a metal clip on the hoop,
then quickly toss it back off. Unfortunately many times this would mean the hoop landed in brambles,
nettles, brush or other fun places from which it required rescuing for use when the next train came by.

Although the hoop remained in use far into the twentieth century, (I witnessed these used well into
the 1970's), it was replaced in most cases by the delivery fork. Still termed as a "hoop," this was
a "Y" shaped device holding string in a triangular shape. Train orders were tied into that string.
The trainmen would stick their fist into the triangle area, which would release onto their arm. This
left the fork in the operators hand, no longer needing to be hunted down in the dark from some ditch.
A fork could also be held by a metal or wooden stand. Which allowed the operator to be doing other
chores while waiting for another train to arrive.

An exception to this was where rules required the train to stop, it's crew to come inside a depot and
be witnessed signing what was known as a restricting (Form 31) order as proof it had been received.

Dependent upon the size of a railroad, there might be one person dispatching all movements, or many
people working assigned track segments known as Divisions and Subdivisions. These people were
generally located at a central point. Such as the main office, or divisional offices. For small
operations, this work could even be done by a clerk, the General Manager or Superintendent.

The Train Orders

Yes, those papers I have noted earlier here, and their many types of paper used. Most of the time
they came in a pad format. There were also many, many variances in the forms. From a completely
blank sheet, on to a form already complete except for date, train, locations and times to be added.
Some required a sheet of carbon paper to be inserted between pages, some had the carbon as a part
of the back side of a sheet. This latter style is more often associated with train crew copied orders.
However, the carbon backed page type was also used by line side operators.

Some pads did not include the name of a railroad, others had the company name showing at top.
There were even issues used for families of companies- Where at times more than one name was
printed or referenced under an all encompassing name such as "Burlington Lines," "Missouri
Pacific Lines," "New York Central System," "Rock Island Lines," and many others. This allowed
use by the parent company and also for their various subsidiaries, thus reducing printing expenses.

In earlier times, these carried no designating number as to form. As time went by we would come
to know these by names such as "Telegraphic Train Order." Then numbers so very familiar- "19" and
"31." But there were others as well. 5, 17, 19X, 19Y, 31X. In Canada, they had many letter designators.
19-A, 19-B, 19-C, and so on. Their most well known probably the 19-R. (The "R" notes a restricting
order. Interestingly, the "R" may be pre-printed, or penciled on the order by an operator as deemed
necessary by a dispatcher.) These papers were not just a plain white in color, but came in many
hues: Of brown, yellow, green, orange, pink, blue and who knows what else I might have omitted!

Interesting Terminologies

Times changed, and so did the ways they instructed train order recipients. At first, train orders
were addressed to the Conductor and Engineer, using their names. You would see an order such as
"TO: JONES AND BROWN- MEET SMITH AND WHITE AT...." This could and did cause
problems, as trains passed each other. In order to be certain the other train was the one you'd
been instructed to meet, you had to see both the engineer and conductor. At night, in bad weather,
or at track speed this could prove difficult- if not impossible. Thus came the use of engine numbers
within the instructions copied. Initially they still used the crew names, combined with engine number,
eventually dropping personal names as being redundant.

There were instructions, which seem quite colorful compared to later times, when looking back to
earlier days. A train which was not on the schedule, in more modern days was told to run as an
"extra" from X to Z- This makes sense. Into the early 1900's, you might see the same type of train
issued an order which instead stated "...RUN WILD..." Another interesting, however seemingly
calmer version for an extra movement was copied as "...RUN SPECIAL..." There would be the
instance of instructing your train to advance "...with rights over...", the old method would state
you were to "...RUN REGARDLESS..." Those old instructions seem quite daring!

As An Art form

Although never intended to be seen as such, I cannot help but to admire them also in this fashion.
During those days prior to typewriters, orders were obviously hand written. As with too much
of the so-called penmanship today, (often disgraceful scrawls at best!), some were awful and
difficult to read. We can only wonder if those examples led to a few accidents between trains.
However, some were written with what they termed as a "hand", which is absolutely beautiful-
done with a flourish and great pride. There were even contests held to see who had the best
"hand" of all. When copied upon the rainbow of paper colors, you indeed had works of art!

The Era Has Passed

Before signing off, I must note how few people have noted these precious papers existed, and
still can be found. Railroadiana collectors may be the guiltiest- Instead, usually opting to
blindly follow the herd mentality, flash and glitz of gathering other items. Museums, railroad
historical societies and so-called "historians" rarely acknowledge these papers. Let alone even
knowing how to correctly display any, or inform the viewing public of their proper use. How many
times I've walked into a "preserved" depot and seen this to be true, or listened to someone
misinforming a visitor. History has been done a disservice which is worse than tragic.


Click Here To Contact Me
Return To The Home Page


Web site content ©
ALL rights reserved.

No claim is made as to those historic documents or any other items displayed here which are not originally my own.
Such other items are public domain, or used with permission.