The Long, Long, Short and Long of it.

This is one of the really curious things about railroading . . . at least in the United States.

First let me explain that when a train approaches one of the many thousand places where a road crosses the railroad tracks “at grade”—that is, where the automobile traffic drives right over the railroad tracks—it is mandatory for the engineer to warn any cars about to cross the tracks with the train’s whistle.

But—and this is what I find so interesting—engineers, whether they are working for Amtrak or for one of the freight railroads, are all instructed to use a very specific whistle pattern when approaching a grade crossing: long, long, short, long. As an engineer told me, “It’s very specific. It’s in the manuals.”

The question I had—now quite a few years ago—was why was that specific combination of long and short blasts on the whistle required by all railroads in North America?

Nobody knew!

There was a time when I asked every conductor on every train ride, and the response was a shrug and the inevitable “Because it’s in the manual.”

And then I mentioned it to Mark Smith. He lives in a suburb of London and is the man behind the world’s best train travel web site, The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

“Well,” he said, “long-long-short-long is Morse Code for the letter Q, so one possible explanation could be that when Queen Victoria went somewhere on the royal yacht, it’s captain blew long-long-short-long on the horn which meant  ‘The Queen is on board … Get the hell out of the way!’ ”

That’s the only explanation I’ve ever gotten and it doesn’t explain why trains in the UK don’t use that signal. The fact remains, however, it is the only explanation I’ve ever heard.

By the way, here’s a link to Mark Smith’s web site, but I warn you all in advance that it’s addictive.  And, since everyone always asks, apparently seat 61 is Mark Smith’s preferred seat on the Eurostar train to Paris.

Personally, I don’t care what seat I’m in as long as I’m on my way to Paris at 187 miles-per-hour!