Reading Signals and Schedules

The fastest form of transportation in the mid-nineteenth century was the train; it changed the pace of people's lives.  With so many swiftly moving trains using a limited number of tracks, train operators needed to develop ways to communicate in order to avoid delays and accidents.  To accomplish this, people used telegraphed messages, visual signals, and timed schedules, which authorized trains to be on specific tracks at specific times.  In the following exercises, students read a train schedule and learn a few of the signals that trainmen needed in order to safely operate a train.




Train schedules help train operators know where they are supposed to be and at what time.  Schedules prevent accidents and delays.  Schedules also help passengers know what time to get to the station to catch their train, and what time their train will get into another town.  Even if you do not travel by train today, you may still need to learn how to read a schedule if you are taking a bus, subway, or any other form of transportation that uses a schedule.

  1. Make a copy for students of the page from the 1931 New York Central Railroad Company Timetable. Find here.

  2. Ask students to answer the following questions by learning to read their timetable (or create appropriate questions of your own).


Questions for Students:

  1. Looking at the top of this page, where do the trains on this schedule run from and to?
    (Answer: Titusville to Dunkirk)
  1. In what direction do they travel?
    (Answer: North)
  1. How many trains are shown on this schedule?  Remember, each train has its own column. 
    (Answer: Four; two passenger trains and two freight trains)
  1. The first column shows how many miles each stop is from Titusville.  How many miles is it from Titusville to Pittsfield?
    (Answer: 23.44)
  1. How many miles from Titusville to Dunkirk?
    (Answer: 90.49)
  1. The second column shows every station at which the train may stop.  How many stops are there from Titusville to Warren?
    (Answer: 13)
  1. How many stops are there from Garland to Akeley?
    (Answer: 8)
  1. Looking down the third and fourth columns, the numbers you will see show what time the trains leave the station.  By looking at the top of the column, you can tell if it is AM or PM.  If a train left Titusville at 7:40AM, what time would it arrive in Dunkirk?
    (Answer: 10:40AM)
  1. Looking down the fourth column, if the train left Titusville at 2:10PM, what time would it be in Youngsville?
    (Answer: 3:03PM)
  1. If you were traveling from Grand Valley to North Warren in the afternoon, what time would you leave?
    (Answer: 2:31PM)

    What time would you arrive in North Warren?
    (Answer: 3:37PM)




Schedules are not enough to run a train safely.  A train operator needs to know if a train is off schedule, if there is trouble on the tracks ahead, or simply how to direct his train.  Color, hand, flag, and lamp signals were created to communicate quickly with train operators.  Some of the symbols which were formalized by train operators (like using red to mean stop, green to mean go, or yellow to indicate caution) are used today for automobiles.


  1. Copy the pages from the 1925 edition of the Pennsylvania Railroad System: Book of Rules and hand out to students. Find here.

  2. Have students study the hand, flag, and lamp signals for a few minutes.

  3. Using a piece of cloth for a flag, the teacher or students can make a signal for the class. See who is able to remember what the signal means.  Alternately, the teacher can give the students a meaning and ask them to make the sign.

  4. Discuss what other signs and signals people should use every day to give and receive directions (cross walk signs showing people crossing in green, a finger to the lips to indicate silence, a figure in a skirt and a figure in pants to indicate the women's and men's rooms, etc...).  Students may want to invent their own sign or signal to mean something that only others in the class will know.


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society