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The long and short of train horn warnings

I notice that the train that comes from Medford and passes through Ashland every day or two blows its horn as it passes intersections, always with the same format: “long-long-short-long”. This is International Morse Code for the letter “Q” (dash-dash-dot-dash).

Why this format? …. they’re wouldn’t be promoting some current conspiracy theory would they?

— Carl, Ashland

Carl, those of us at the Locomotive Audiology Department (LAD) of the Transportation Wing (TW) at Since You Asked World Headquarters (SYAWH) thought at first that you might be hearing things and, as it turns out … we were right.

The good news for you is that the “long-long-short-long” warning sounded by trains as they approach a public intersection has less to do with as it does with S-O-P.

Or, in Morse Code: dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dash-dash-dot.

The signal you’re hearing is standard operating procedure for locomotive horns, as established by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The rule requires that the warning be sounded at all public grade crossings 15-20 seconds before the train enters the crossing, but no more than a quarter-mile from reaching the potentially deadly intersection of track and road.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are about 5,800 crashes nationally each year involving trains and vehicles, resulting in approximately 600 deaths.

In the state, a 2019 report by the Oregon Department of Transportation found that 120 such collisions had occurred over a 10-year period, resulting in 20 fatalities.

As to the other part of your question, as much as those of us in the Locomotive Audiology Department love a good conspiracy — considering how rarely we get asked for our expertise — it appears that the pattern’s indication of the letter Q is just what we call a coinkydink.

The Final Rule on the Use of Locomotive Horns at Highway/Rail Grade Crossings … or, more simply, the FRULHH/RGC … established the warning pattern in 2005, or a dozen or so years before the emergency of the QAnon movement.

The sequence goes even further back, as online train enthusiasts’ groups cite a 1939 ruling for the use of the pattern.

Originally, the pattern was long-short-short-long, signifying the letter X — which, of course, not only indicates a “crossing,” but ties into the XX symbol we associate with railroad tracks.

It was apparently changed to begin with two “long” blows of the horn to give those nearing the intersection an even more decisive warning.

So, Carl, that’s the long and short of it. Sorry for the lengthy explanation but, like we said, those of us in the LAD don’t get asked many questions these days.

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