Railroad travelers and model train enthusiasts alike might wonder how trains keep passengers safe while all sharing the same rails. Railway authorities have many systems in place to help coordinate the safe passage of freight and passengers, and they also have to account for emergency communication between trains to avoid calamity or mobilize an appropriate response. Over the decades, trains and how they are routed have changed greatly, and today, modern technology has enhanced communication on the tracks.

A Brief Timeline of Trains

1802: The first patent for a steam-powered locomotive was granted to Andrew Vivian and Richard Trevithick.

1826: In the United States, Col. John Stevens (inventor of the steamboat) built the “Steam Wagon,” a carriage drawn by a steam engine. In the United Kingdom, George Stephensondesigned the first railways.

1827: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began construction to compete with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, ushering in an era of commerce and travel by railway.

1830s: As cities grew, so did the need for mass transportation, both within and between. Development of interstate railways continued through the 1850s, but the Civil War halted progress.

1860-1865: Although the Civil War put further development of railways on hiatus, trains were integral to the transport of troops and supplies.

1869: The Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad unite their lines with a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. The transcontinental railroad was the first of many, creating a need for safety regulations, which included developing methods of communication that could reach the trains.

How Trains Talk

In the early days of transcontinental train travel, the railways were signaled with flags and lamps. These indicated to the conductor what was ahead, whether or not the track was clear to travel through, and if there were other trains coming. The advent of electricity made this system more efficient, as lights could be used at night, but as trains became faster, the system had to evolve to avoid collisions.

The next innovation to facilitate emergency communication on the railways was to identify portions of the track in blocks and then grant permission for trains to occupy these blocks. Since only one train could occupy a block at a time, this method streamlined how trains were dispatched by determining who should occupy a block at any given time and sending a signalonly to that train.

More recently, the methods of communication between trains have grown more sophisticated. A switch to treating the tracks as blocks has improved safety even further by accounting for where trains actually are. Advances in technology allow signals to reach the train rather than the conductor seeing them externally and also provide overlap to make sure trains always receive their signals.

How Models Show Past and Future

Model train enthusiasts all over the world create displays that have realistic details and showcase scenic cities and countrysides. Models can also recreate historic events in the history of trains or travel or just scenes where trains were present. Building models is so relaxing that it has even been used as therapy. People of all ages can become engaged in building model trains, and it’s a hobby that can last a lifetime. Model trains can even be built virtually on a computer to simulate unusual or extreme conditions, helping engineers and designers plan ahead to avoid catastrophes through effective emergency communication.

Further Reading