If you ever come across a train at a railroad crossing, then you’ll likely notice that they honk.
They also honk when first coming into a station or leaving a station as well.
Besides scaring and alerting the crowd, you may wonder if the conductor just likes blowing the horn or if there’s a reason behind it.
Here’s what you need to know about trains and why they blow their horns.
Why Do Trains Honk?
Trains honk to alert people to the approaching train.
It warns them to get off or move away from the tracks.
The whistles are also helpful for scaring animals away from the tracks.
Because trains move at high speeds and have a lot of weight on them, stopping isn’t immediate.
It can take several minutes for the train to finally come to a stop.
If there’s anything in the tracks along the way, then the train is going to crush it.
Very few things can stop a train and impede its movement.
Even cars and large animals are no match for a train.
It will run right through them and destroy them.
Since trains use their horns to signal their approach, you may wonder what different honking sounds mean.
They don’t always mean the same thing, and the conductor is responsible for using the correct whistle to give the correct signal.
Here are some of the whistle signals that you might hear and what they mean.
1. Applying The Brakes
If crew members hear a single, long, whistle, then this tells them that they need to apply the brakes.
The whistle also informs everyone around that the train is going to be stopping or that it’s slowing down.
The symbol for this type of signal is a single horizontal line.
A train engineer might choose to apply the brakes when it’s coming into a station.
If the train is stopping, they’ll need to hold the brakes until the train comes to a stop.
If they’re passing through, they might slow down as a precaution.
A train might also need to slow down when they spot something on the tracks.
By slowing down, the conductor can use other signals to try and scare off the animal or warn the person from the tracks.
When you hear a single long honk, you know the train is applying its brakes.
2. Passing Trains
Another common honk to hear is one for passing trains.
When a train is passing a standing train, one that isn’t moving, they’re required to give a warning.
That warning comes in the form of two long honks, a short honk, and then another long honk.
A train will signal to another train that they’re passing by as a precaution.
It alerts that train’s crew who might be on the tracks and relaxing.
It also gives the standing train a chance to signal back to the passing train if they need some assistance.
For example, the train might be on a different track because they’re awaiting repairs.
If the approaching train has some parts to spare, then they might be able to help out.
Even trains parked at a station will receive this signal.
It tells the crew and passengers that another train is passing by.
For example, if the train is passing through the station rather than stopping, then it will give this honk to alert those who are inside the station.
If anyone is boarding the train at that time, then they can prepare themselves for the inevitable force of gravity that follows a fast passing train.
Trains use this signal to inform other trains that they’re approaching and passing them.
3. Whistle Signs Marked “W” and “W/MX”
The Federal Railroad Association has a honk mandate at grade crossings.
Those crossings are at places marked with a “W” or “W/MX” sign on the railroad.
When a conductor sees one of those signs, then they know that they need to give a certain whistle.
It’s the same signal as when passing a train or approaching another train.
When you hear two long honks, a short honk, and another long honk, then you know the train is passing through a grade crossway.
This means the train is crossing over a road at a railroad crossing.
The FRA mandates this particular whistle because it tells those who are at the railroad crossing that a train is coming.
Because drivers are impatient, many of them will try and beat the train to the crossing.
In a car, it can seem like a train is going slow.
In most cases, they’re actually moving very fast.
At the very least, they’re moving fast enough that stopping becomes difficult.
The honk of the train can startle the driver enough to encourage them to stop racing the train and wait until it passes.
It also helps alert anyone who might be playing on the tracks.
Kids and teenagers, for example, might hang out at the track near crossings.
The horns give them plenty of warning that they need to clear the area.
Because the horns are very loud, the FRA only allows them to use this particular signal at grade crossings.
4. People On The Tracks
When a train conductor sees people on the tracks, it’s a serious concern.
They do everything they can to alert those people to the train’s presence.
When a conductor or crew member notices people on the tracks, then the train will give a series of honks to get their attention.
There isn’t a specific signal that the train uses.
The conductor just has to honk as much as they can to make the people aware of the approaching train.
It might mean that they give a series of long honks or a series of short honks.
They might even mix them to make it easier to gain their attention.
A conductor might also use other signals to inform the rest of the crew of what’s going on.
For example, they might give the signal to apply the brakes to start slowing down.
While it’s doubtful they’ll be able to stop in time, unless they were already going slow, applying the brakes might give those on the tracks a bit more time to get off.
Seeing people on the tracks is a conductor’s worst nightmare.
There’s only so much that they can do.
When it comes to human bodies and trains, the train always wins.
If you hear a series of honks coming from a train that doesn’t seem to indicate anything, then it means the conductor is doing everything they can to alert something on the tracks to get off of them.
5. Approaching Roadway Workers Or Roadway Equipment
Trains aren’t the only vehicles that can be on the train tracks.
Railroad workers often use modified trucks to drive up and down the tracks to inspect and repair them.
These trucks use wheels similar to a train’s rather than tires typical of a truck.
The workers drive the truck up and down the track to check for problems with the tracks.
If they find anything, they repair it if they can or make note of it.
Because they share the tracks with trains, it’s not uncommon for the two to come across one another.
In this instance, a train will give a signal to warn the truck that it’s approaching.
The signal uses one long honk and then a short honk.
The railroad workers know that they need to move their truck off to the side or speed up to get out of the way.
Trains will also use this signal when they encounter equipment left on the tracks by railroad workers.
They’ll give the signal, and then usually signal to apply the brakes, too.
They don’t want to crash into the equipment since it can be pretty heavy and expensive.
A train may stop and wait for the crew to remove the equipment from the tracks before continuing.
In most cases, repairs follow a schedule to ensure that workers and trains don’t encounter each other.
However, delays and special repair requests sometimes make those meetings inevitable.
When a train spots a railroad worker or equipment on or near the track, then they’ll give a signal.
This tells the railroad workers that they need to leave the area or remove their equipment.
6. Backing Up
Many large vehicles are required to honk the horn when they’re backing up.
That’s because it’s very difficult to see what’s behind them.
A semi-truck, pick-up truck, or even a utility vehicle will honk to inform everyone that it intends to back up.
This allows anyone near the back of the vehicle to get out of the way.
Trains are no different.
They also honk the horn when they’re going to back up.
The signal for backing up is three short honks.
This occurs when the train has stopped and intends to back up.
Since trains are quite long, the conductor can’t see behind.
Even if a crewmember stands at the back, the conductor is relying on information from that crew member instead of seeing it with their own eyes.
An animal might suddenly run across the back along the tracks.
If the train is at the station, then someone might walk at the back of the train to get to the other side of the tracks.
Whatever the reason, the signal is a way to warn everyone that the train intends to back up.
If people are passing by on the tracks behind it or even railroad workers, then they know that they need to get out of the way.
This signal is also used to acknowledge a hand signal.
If another conductor gives a hand signal to the train or the station master, then the conductor can indicate that they understand by blowing the horn three short times.
Because trains are so loud, it’s impossible to hear another conductor or even the station master.
Hand signals ensure that everyone understands what is being said.
When the conductor gives that signal, then the other conductor or station master knows that everyone is on the same page.
If you hear that particular signal, then you can expect the train to start backing up.
If it doesn’t back up, then it’s likely because the conductor is acknowledging a hand signal that someone gave.
A train doesn’t usually stop unless it’s scheduled or necessary.
If the train is carrying passengers, its duty is to get those passengers to the appropriate stations as quickly as possible.
If the train is carrying freight, then it needs to transport its cargo to its appropriate locations as quickly as possible.
Any breaks between are highly regulated and quick.
However, there are some occasions when stopping the train is inevitable.
When a train needs to stop, it gives two short honks.
Anyone who hears this signal knows that the train is going to stop.
The signal for the crewmembers to start braking usually follows.
The most common case when a train uses this signal is when they’re stopping at a station.
The train will signal their approach, then give the signal that they intend to stop.
This allows those inside the train to become aware of where they are.
They can check to ensure that this is the station where they need to disembark and collect their things accordingly.
It also warns those at the station that the train is going to stop.
It can help ensure that everyone keeps away from the tracks.
Those who intend to board it can also collect their things and prepare for boarding.
Those who work at the station can come out and prepare to check over the train, refuel it, or switch out the crew for the rest of the journey.
A train might also give this signal when they need to stop on the tracks.
If the conductor sees something on the tracks or notices a problem with the tracks, then they might signal that the train is going to stop.
This allows everyone in the area to understand the train’s intentions.
This is especially important if the train is stopping while it’s passing through a railroad crossing.
It informs the drivers that they need to find an alternative path of crossing.
Finally, conductors can also use this signal to indicate something that there isn’t an official signal for.
8. Calling For Signals
When a train conductor needs information about what’s going on, they might call for signals.
To do this, they blow the horn four times in short succession.
Those in the area then understand that the conductor isn’t sure what’s going on.
They can then reply with a signal.
A conductor might also call for a signal when it’s stopped on the side of the tracks.
If it notices a train approaching and the train hasn’t given any signals yet, then the conductor might call for a signal.
There’s a chance that the conductor hasn’t seen them yet.
By hearing the call for a signal, they become aware that there’s a train somewhere along the tracks.
They can then make the appropriate signal to communicate.
Finally, a conductor might call for signals at a busy station.
If there’s a delay or something isn’t going according to plan, then they might call for a signal to determine what’s going on.
They might learn that a train is having issues and needs to back up.
They might learn that they need to pull their train out of the station to make room for another.
Calling for signals is a useful way for conductors to find out information about what’s going on around them.
Train honks play important roles in the operation of a train.
Since the FRA prohibits the use of the horn outside of these signals, you know that a conductor is never honking the horn just for fun.
By memorizing these signals, you can learn what the conductors are saying to each other and to you.