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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

The Evocative ‘Morse Code’ of Trains

Updated: Jul 1

The sound of a distant train's whistle echoing across the stillness of a lonely night is perhaps the most haunting of sounds. Those audible signals can evoke feelings of nostalgia for days gone by or wanderlust for new adventures in far off places. They are a favorite effect in film noire scenes and a feature of countless American folk songs and ballads.

Train whistles originated in the 19th century and served as an essential tool for conveying information to railroad employees both on and off the train, before the invention of radio communications. The whistles were steam powered until the advent of diesel locomotives which replicate the sounds these days using air horns.

The code for train whistles was initially standardized in the 1880s and outlined in the General Code of Operating Rules. These whistle patterns have been used ever since, with a few revisions, by most railroads in the U.S.

Here are the basic Train Whistle Codes: (“0” indicates a short whistle blast; while a “—” indicates a longer one.)

0 0 0  When stopped, backing up; acknowledgement of hand signal to back up.

0 0 0 0  Request for signal to be given or repeated if not understood.

— —  Train releases brakes and proceeds.

— — 0 —  Approaching a public grade crossing.

— 0  Approaching men or equipment on or near the track, regardless of any local whistle prohibitions.

— 0 0 Warning that a second section of a timetabled train is following.

Train is approaching a station on a track next to a platform.

A series of short blasts is sounded in an emergency.


The most common train whistle sounds we hear are the – – 0 – alerts of trains approaching public grade crossings. In some residential municipalities, train whistles are not used at all due to noise ordinances.

A locomotive’s bell is also used as a signal. The bell is rung repeatedly as a warning when a train is pulling into and exiting a passenger station and when passing stations and grade crossings at a slow speed. Also, it is used frequently in yards when trains are switching tracks.


Check out this list of 23 best train songs ever written from Harper’s Magazine (6/16/14).

:-) Please like and share this train whistle post!

Photo: Envato Elements

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