The Most Absolute of Absolute Signals
Wx4 Grab Bag
updated: 9/5/05

First, a short primer about signals:

On railroads that operate under the General Code of Operating Rules (the industry standard 'apple' that is transmogrified into oranges and other unrelated fruits by the individual carriers), you have three basic types of signaled territories: Automatic Block Signal (ABS, or 'block signal'), Interlocking, and Centralized Track Control (CTC). I have no idea if this holds true for the Northeast Railroads that operate under the 'other' standard rule book, NORAC, because it apparently was written by Klingons.

An ABS signal is activated automatically by train movements, hence its name, and can be identified by a number plate (corresponding to its milepost location) displayed on the mast below the signal head. Interlocking and CTC signals, otherwise known as absolute signals, don't have number plates and are usually controlled by a human (NORAC: Klingon) operator, although some interlocking signals work automatically.

In terms of the General Code, the important thing to know is that you may proceed at restricted speed after stopping at a red ABS signal, but this is not so for the others. At CTC and manned interlocking signals, after stopping, you must have permission to proceed from the signal's operator, who is six states away in Keokuk, copying a grocery list ("Don't forget the apples and oranges, honey!") dictated over the phone from his wife. Getting by a red unmanned automatic interlocking signal also can be a problem, because it sometimes requires consultation with the rule book and timetable special instructions (see the humorous aside).

By way of review: To paraphrase the General Code, there are no absolute signals in ABS

One day in the mid-1990's, my immediate boss, the Road Foreman of Engines, climbed into my cab to give me a "Check Ride", a twice-yearly, federally-required reaffirmation that the inert individual on the seatbox is indeed alive..and maybe functional. Young engineers dread these things, because the typical Road Foreman hasn't yet given-up on them (meaning: he thinks that he still can keep them in line), and uses the time to offer many helpful criticisms (see: rebukes) along the way. Many of us older guys actually enjoy these sessions, because it gives us the opportunity to give back at least as good as we get. In my way of thinking, a Road Foreman vigorously shaking his head while climbing down off of the engine is giving me an A+. Al Marske, if your feet are still kicking amongst those Red Cans up there in Dunsmuir - you taught me well, father.

In truth, most of the trip proved pretty uneventful and the battle of wits unextraordinary:

Typical example:
"E.O., you didn't blow the whistle a quarter-mile from the road crossing!"
That's because there was no whistle post like the law says there's supposed to be, and I was estimating, Fred (not his real name).
"That was no quarter-mile, regardless."
Well, I personally think it was more like three-eighths. Why don't we back up and measure to see who is right?

Towards the trip's end, "Fred" finally got around to asking me about the Safety Rule of the Day, which he really didn't want to do, based upon past experience with me. I really don't know which rule that he asked about on that day, but it was probably something about preventing stapler injuries, or how you shouldn't walk down hallways with your hands in your pockets (this is a real Amtrak rule, folks!).

Fred: "What's the Safety Rule of the day?"
Gee Fred, I don't know, but don't I still have the rest of the day to get back to you on that?"

This elicited a low moan and we quickly moved on to the next question (I figure that he also thought that the rule was stupid). In a drone, he asked:

"Okay E.O., what's the Rule of the Week?"
Response: I don't know Fred, but it's only Wednesday.

With a loud sigh, Fred put it to me directly: "What would you do if you got a red "A" [absolute] signal in ABS territory?"

I was absolutely stumped. I recalled that, a couple of days earlier, I had begun to review the rule, only to find that it was a Southern Pacific DTC rule that didn't apply anywhere that I would run an engine in this lifetime. I immediately cleared my head of such unnecessary trivia, lest it somehow unsteady the proper order of things in my middle-aged mind.

What else could I say? "I don't know, Fred. I thought that an "A" signal meant that you were not in ABS territory. What would you do?"

Fred let out another moan of frustration, began scribbling on my evaluation sheet and said nothing for the rest of the trip. At the run's conclusion, he shoved a copy of the evaluation sheet towards me and departed. I never looked at the evaluation, but noticed that Fred was shaking his head as he got off of the equipment. Another A+ evaluation, I reckon!.

Dear Federal Railroad Administration,

I know that it looks bad here, but despite what you've read above, I really do review the Safety and Operating Rules (honest!), but I pointedly try to forget dumb and non-applicable rules, because I don't want such stuff cluttering and confusing my ever-more-elderly mind at 79 m.p.h. I hope that you understand.

Further, I'd like to point-out that later in the week I actually looked-up the signal rule. It was a Southern Pacific DTC rule,that, frankly, I had a hard time visualizing until some months later I ran across a photograph (attached) which self-evidently clarified the scenario. I judge this to be the most absolute of absolute signals.

Thanks for your attention,

- E.O.

(OK, in reality, this was an operational signal on Caltrain's ex-SP eastbound main a few hundred yards geographically north of San Carlos. The foreground trackage was the first segment of a shoo-fly around San Carlos depot while the main tracks were raised during a grade separation project in the mid-1990's. Photo by Kent Clark.)