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Railroaders' Nostalgia > Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973


Date: 05/09/20 23:19
Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: dsrc512

My second railroad job was as a switchman and later the senior extra board yardmaster for a MoPac subsidiary, the TP&MP Terminal Railroad of New Orleans.  Radios were available, there were a few "lunch-box" sized ones and a handful of new smaller ones that would fit in a large  pocket like a bib overall.  There were only two radio channels, and most of us preferred hand signals to avoid radio interference from another crew.  My recollection is there were 31 tracks in Avondale yard at the western end of the Huey P. Long bridge.  We routinely used unique number signals by day, and a variation of Roman numerals at night.  There were also signs to control engine speed and direction.

I thought about this after reading an article about human communication.  The accepted hypothesis is that pre-humans used gestures before they had the ability to speak.

Herewith the numbers during daylight;
One -    a fist above shoulder.
Two -   both fists above shoulders
Three- both fists above shoulders, shaken vigorously
Four -  both fists lowered in front of chest, simulate beating chest a la Tarzan
Five -  fist above shoulder, then all five fingers extended, palm facing recipient.
Six -   like five, then fist closed with a wrist twist and thumb sticking up
Seven- fist at belly level, then make a throw away motion to the side, opened hand, as if shooting craps
Eight- rub stomach in circular motion, "I just ate"
Nine - above head , pound fist into open palm of other hand
Ten - like five, but with both hands, fingers fully extended
Eleven- touch one shoulder with fingers together
Twelve- touch both shoulders with fingers together
Thirteen and above - Ten signal followed by a sign for one to nine.  Twenty was ten twice

Night signals, counts were mostly wrist action while holding the bail on a Conger lantern.
One thru four were a vertical flick(s) upwards.
Five was a rainbow shaped arc.
Six- arc + one flick
Seven - arc + two flicks
Ten was two rainbow arcs like a windshield wiper.
Good commication required the field man repeat the night signals
The rip track holds went on #23, double rainbow and three flicks.  If the field man was feeling sassy, he would "mis-read" the engine foreman's signal.  Foreman would repeat, the field man would respond,  Much flickering.

I had just broken in when I got a lesson in hand signal dialects.  In Michigan I had learned that a circle meant back up, vertical up and down meant go forward.  In New Orleans, as the pin puller, I relayed a circle sign from the engine foreman.  He immediately signaled stop, then repeated the signal.  After a second stop, he walked several car lengths to tell me that a circle, moving your hand away from your head meant "go away", circling your hand toward your head meant "come to me".  There was no equivalent night signal.  I was just smart enough to know better than to tell him what I thought.

There were a whole bunch of signals that may have been local.  Some I have seen elsewhere.  Stop seems universal, an upside down rainbow arc, with bare hand, hand with rag, or hand with lantern.
Uncouple or pull the pin - a swipe of the both open hands past each other on a diagonal.
Couple up - curl fingers together on both hands in front of chest. 
When kicking cars, to tell the engineer to throttle up - twirling a single finger pointed up at least at head height
To slow down, an easy sign was both arms extended at shoulder height, raising and lowering them alternately in a rocking motion.  Also used when necessary to make a gentle coupling.
To head through a crossover - tap head followed by a slash move of hand across throat.
To back through a crossover - tap butt, followed by slash move. 
Go on the spot - make a fist with your thumb aimed at your face. Move thumb toward your mouth while tilting your head back slightly as if drinking from the spout of a teapot.  My speculation is that was a adaptation of a steam era signal the engineer would use to tell the conductor the engine needed to stop at a water tank to refill the tender.  
The best for last - tie up  - make a teepee or a church steeple above your head with the extended fingers of both hands, followed by the kick sign.  Make haste to the (engine)house in other words.

Once in a while you would get into a situation where there wasn't any signal you knew to help out.   My first paid work that established my seniority date, Jan 31, 1973, was an evening industry job that switched a plant that made Celotex fiberboard interior wall and ceiling panels.  The feed stock was bagasse, what is left of sugar cane stalks after they have been run through rollers at the sugar mills.  Almost all the juice (sap containing raw sugar) is squeezed out.  We had to go in and pull and spot cars.  Shoving some cars to spot, the little SW8 dropped two wheels in due to wide gauge.  I was near the engine relaying signals while the field man and conductor were making joints.  They gave a signal to move ahead, I flagged them down.  This was repeated a couple of times.  I finally put my light on the ground to give them a clue.  They started walking back.  A fellow in a white hard hat popped out of a building and asked what was going on.  I told him, and having previously worked for a shortline without work rules, I asked if he had a sledge hammer we could borrow.  He said he would check and soon returned with one.  For you guys that came up with Class I experience, you can imagine how my engine foreman and field man felt.  Here was a new guy. first hire in two years, about to try to rerail.  They were good sports about it and we managed to gather up enough material that got the job done.  The yard office had been notified we were on the ground, and had called the section foreman who rounded up his crew for some overtime.  They and their truck got to the plant just as we were pulling out.  They weren't unhappy, they got four hours pay for coming in. 

Alex Huff         

                     
  
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Date: 05/09/20 23:59
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: Drknow

Good description of hand signals. I was raised by the old heads to use them whenever possible. Then UP asinine rules made it almost impossible to use them. Yeah, that’s safe have 5 jobs, 2 of them light engines, all making moves at the same time; all on the radio. After the last almost 20 years of that idiocy some “idea man” decided we could use hand signals again. Now most of the new guys with less than 15-20 years don’t know hand signs for shit and use the damn radio almost 100%. The old heads are spinning in their graves and I just shake my head.

Posted from iPhone



Date: 05/10/20 07:04
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: hoggerdoug

We had a old time yard Conductor that was pretty lazy raising or moving his hands for signals, plus he wore big heavy leather mittens. Finally one day, everything stopped moving, the old Hogger got off the yard engine and had a chat with the Conductor. "Ernie, you might be moving your fingers giving signals but your mitts are not moving". Proper hand signals started and the crew got moving again.
Doug



Date: 05/10/20 08:43
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: retcsxcfm

I worked as a car inspector at times on the
SAL,SCL and CSX.
I could never understand the forward and
reverse hand signals.Because you needed
to know which direction the locomotive was
facing.
My thought was, go away, wave your hand
as you were leaving OR curl your hand as
if I wanted you to come to me.
It would not make any difference as to
locomotive direction.

Uncle Joe
Seffner,Fl.



Date: 05/10/20 17:42
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: Chessie

retcsxcfm wrote: "I could never understand the forward and
reverse hand signals.Because you needed
to know which direction the locomotive was
facing."

For similar reasons I NEVER used "ahead" or "back" on the radio.  ALWAYS "pull" or "shove".  Additionally I always used "That's good" or "Far enough" - I made it known that if I say "Stop" there is urgency involved. 



Date: 05/10/20 22:11
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: railstiesballast

IIRC on the SP the "F" painted on the front of a locomotive set up how to use signals for forward or reverse with night siganls.
Forward was up and down, reverse was a circle.
By day the circle meant "come to me" and the vertical motion was to back away from me no matter which end the F was on..
But even on one railroad there were many local variations.
 



Date: 05/11/20 06:15
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: Drknow

I was taught that on the radio there are only two directions. A-head and backem’ up. And it’s that’ll do to stop the movement. Then some nitwit at the Corp “safety” HQ decided we needed compass directions to make the moves and the word STOP had to be uttered almost in every sentence. Then The Sups sent the little minions out to enforce unsafe rules. Most of us that have been around for a while laughed in their faces and pointed out that since a track can literally circle back upon itself, and timetable and compass directions don’t have to jive how in hell was anyone supposed to know what the hell was going on? And STOP was supposed to be for SHTF moments only. Hey at least during this Covid pandemic the minions are hiding in their offices and leaving us alone.

Posted from iPhone



Date: 05/11/20 07:14
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: RRTom

Thanks for this!

Hand signals were in MOW also.  I learned signals for measurements of 1/8 to 7/8 inches used for lining track and superelevation in 1993 when surfacing track on Amtrak's NEC in Connecticut.  My recollections are fuzzy so I won't try to explain them except I think 1/2" was touching the edge of your hand (pinky side) to the inside of your opposite elbow joint and 7/8" was running your hand diagonally over your chest like a seven.  Useful when there were loud noises like track equipment right next to you.  No radio required.



Date: 05/11/20 21:03
Moo Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: swingnose

The minions are hiding indoors at my RR but now watching cameras and listening to radio even more than usual to justify their jobs.

Drknow Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I was taught that on the radio there are only two
> directions. A-head and backem’ up. And it’s
> that’ll do to stop the movement. Then some
> nitwit at the Corp “safety” HQ decided we
> needed compass directions to make the moves and
> the word STOP had to be uttered almost in every
> sentence. Then The Sups sent the little minions
> out to enforce unsafe rules. Most of us that have
> been around for a while laughed in their faces and
> pointed out that since a track can literally
> circle back upon itself, and timetable and compass
> directions don’t have to jive how in hell was
> anyone supposed to know what the hell was going
> on? And STOP was supposed to be for SHTF moments
> only. Hey at least during this Covid pandemic the
> minions are hiding in their offices and leaving us
> alone.
>
> Posted from iPhone



Date: 05/11/20 21:17
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: cewherry

Your description of hand signals is very similar to my experience around Los Angeles in the early
1960's. My first railroad job was with SP subsidiary Pacific Electric and of course trainmen were
not using radios for yard switching or industrial work at that time. The basic hand signals were about
as you described. After a couple of months with P.E. I had the opportunity to go to work for SP and
their hand signals were similar to PE's with the exception of when the numbers of tracks above 10 were involved. 

In SP's 'A' yard, where many trains were yarded prior to being re-classified over the hump, there were
29 tracks and each track above ten had its own individual hand sign. To the day I left SP, I never memorized
those numbers above 10. The switchmen, at least the 'old-heads', knew and were comfortable in 'talking'
to each other with them but as an enginemen I just waited for a simple 'ahead' or 'back-up' before moving.

Charlie



Date: 05/12/20 12:43
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: trainjunkie




Date: 05/12/20 16:31
Re: Hand signals while switching in New Orleans, 1973
Author: Waybiller

trainjunkie Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> More on hand
> signs. https://www.trainorders.com/discussion/rea
> d.php?18,2973130

The original link in that thread appears dead.



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