What's That Signal By the Tracks?

Oct 8, 2015

Each month, “Why’s That?” takes a question you ask about Southwest Michigan and tries to find an answer. You can submit your idea for the show and, through Sunday, vote on our topic for November.

Listener Laurel Eppstein asked our question for October. Eppstein lives in Comstock Township, and she hears trains pass by often.

“Oh, all the time,” she says. “We get Amtrak and in the middle of the night, freight trains will go by that are so long and so loud, they just – they rattle the windows in my house. But I kind of like it,” she adds.

And Eppstein has seen lots of work done on the tracks recently.

“And they also put up these new signals that are different than other signals I’ve seen for new railroad tracks,” she says.

One is a tall post with three sets of lights. They show red, yellow, green, like a traffic light. While the post has nine lights total, only three ever seem to be lit at one time – one from the top set, one in the middle set and one at the bottom.

“And a lot of times all three of them are red. But sometimes the middle one is flashing yellow, sometimes it’s flashing green and I’ve never seen them solid any other color than red. So I’m just wondering, what those signals mean,” Eppstein says.

Just west of the post, an L-shaped post reaches over the track with two pairs of signals.

“If the train was coming from the west, they’re over the track and both of those are always red. I’ve never seen them any other color. So I wonder what those are for too,” she says.

Amtrak and Norfolk Southern both run through Comstock. But the tracks belong to the state. We called the Michigan Department of Transportation to ask: why the new signals?

MDOT’s Tim Hoeffner explains. He says they’re part of a major upgrade of Amtrak’s line between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. The improvements will allow Amtrak to up its maximum speed on that line from 80 miles an hour to 110.

The changes are also in line with proposed federal safety requirements.

“The new signals are LED signals – color – which are much more intense light and can be seen at greater distances and – more in inclement weather,” he says.

To find out more about the signals, I visit a railroad with an office in Kalamazoo: Grand Elk, a short-haul line for freight.

“We handle traffic between Grand Rapids, Michigan and Elkhart Indiana and that’s why they came up with Grand Elk,” says General Manager Larry McCloud.

He pulls out the railroad’s timetable – the engineer’s comprehensive guide on the Grand Elk line.

“Timetables and rule books are just like reading the Bible. What I mean by that is, if you just read you know the one sentence or the one paragraph, you could interpret that to mean something that it doesn’t mean,” he says.

It becomes clear that train signals are a lot more complex than a traffic light on the road. The three lights don’t merely say stop, go or slow down. They say things like: go at a certain speed for now, and exactly at this point slow down, and be prepared to stop here.

On Grand Elk, you’ll see about 16 distinct signals.

“You have annual rules you have to pass, you’ve got triannual, so all engineers and conductors have to know all these signals,” McCloud says.

Learning sixteen brief sets of instructions might not seem so bad. But consider that the signal “clear” – which more or less means ‘go’ – can appear in seven forms on Grand Elk’s tracks.
‘Clear’ can show up as a disc with three yellow lights, or two green lights on a post.

It’s the same for the other signals. In all, this timetable shows 100 ways of saying 16 things. Why so much redundancy? McCloud says different railroads came up with different conventions.

“It would take a lot of money to make them all standard. So that’s never going to happen,” he says.

One of the signals Eppstein has seen is red-flashing green-red.
I ask McCloud what it means.

“That one corresponds to – right here. See that one’s red green red, right? Yep, that’s a limited clear,” he says.

Limited clear: proceed at “limited speed” – you know how fast that is because you’ve read your timetable. Wait till you’ve passed any one of several kinds of switches. Then you can go at “authorized speed.”

Then there’s the signal that faces west, the one with two pairs of signals.

“The reason there’s two sets like that is because when you get down there further there’s two mains,” he says.

Two tracks, that is. There’s one signal for each. Laurel has only ever seen those lights red. McCloud says they surely do change color. But, “If they’re both red, then that means there’s traffic coming from the opposite direction,” McCloud says.

Eppstein also asked about red-flashing yellow-red. It’s not in Grand Elk’s timetable. But McCloud says a yellow generally means to slow down to a “restricted” speed.

A Norfolk Southern signal guide on the website railroads.us says that red-flashing yellow-red means you’re going to approach the next signal at ‘restricted’ speed.

When I show Eppstein the timetable, she agrees that it’s too much to take in at a glance. She makes a copy and says she might take up train-signal-watching in retirement.

“It’ll be like bird watching. See if I can catch all the signals and check them off,” she says.