Railroad Morse

My thoughts are evolving about how to use the telegraph network I recently installed on the layout.

I originally planned to use International Morse for my layout. One of the advantages of International Morse is that the alphabet was rationalized so it’s easier to learn than Railroad (American) Morse. (More on this below.)

On the other hand, I’ve realized that it’s unlikely I – or my guests – will actually learn to pound brass like Morse enthusiasts.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am creating telegraphy scripts to help operators OS trains during ops sessions. This is akin to creating a phonetic cheat-sheet to help someone properly pronounce a word or phrase, even if they don’t know what it means. If that’s the case, I might as well give Railroad Morse a go, right?

I’ve now created scripts in Railroad (American) Morse for us to try:
 photo Telegraph-Scripts-D2_zps1f5924d3.jpg

In reviewing these scripts, one challenge which I have not yet addressed is that Railroad Morse actually has more than two sounds in it:

– In addition to the dot and the dash, there are spaces (no sound) used within characters. For example, the letter “O” in Railroad Morse is “dot-space-dot”.

– As well, some dashes are longer than others. For example, the letter “L” in Railroad Morse is written as two dashes – but keyed as one long dash. And the number “0” in Railroad Morse – three dashes as written – is keyed as a dash that’s even longer than an “L”.

Given that we will be novices with the keys, it’ll be stretching our talents just to key a dot versus a dash – never mind developing perfect timing. For this reason, I’ve kept the International Morse scripts too – adding a label in mice-type to each sheet so I can tell which set we’re using. If Railroad Morse proves to be too challenging for occasional users, we’ll go back to International Morse.

I’ve also made a first attempt at creating a script sheet for the dispatcher:
 photo Telegraph-DispatcherScript_zps3b833d36.jpg

This looks complex, but the reality is that the dispatcher on my layout has but three responses to transmit. What’s more, with the exception of which station he’s answering (Port Rowan or St. Williams), the responses are always the same. The operator could key “Arrived” successfully, or it could come across the telegraph as “I’ve just set my elbows on fire”: Regardless, the dispatcher will give him an “OK”.

That said, I’m still working on my ideas about how to organize the scripts to make it easier for operators and the dispatcher to use because I do want my friends and I to be able to communicate successfully via the telegraph network. If we can’t, then we might as well be pressing a button on the fascia to send a pre-recorded string of dots and dashes – and there’s no fun in that.

Naturally as the system develops, I’ll share the progress via the blog. Stay tuned…

26 thoughts on “Railroad Morse

  1. Hi, Trevor.

    Kudos for trying to stay true to prototype. I have heard the argument that International Code is easier to learn,but aside from numerals, I don’t agree. Numerals on radio are in a logical progression ( .—- =1, ..— = 3, etc.)

    Here’s a tip: On the landline wire lines, we didn’t usually use that long long dash for zero. We used the “o” (dit-space-dit) …. the context normally makes it clear when it is meant to be a numeral or a letter. The long dash was hard to differentiate from letter “L”, plus took too much time.

    Download “Morse KOB” or”The Mill” from the web.and play a bit …. you can get the idea of the sound of a telegraph sounder. On MorseKOB there are a couple of “wires” which send from a script, such as the Latest News from the frontlines during the US Civil War. You can type on your keyboard and hear it in Morse Code as you type. They are both small programs.

    You may decide to purchase a pair of sounders ….. not expensive on eBay, unless you look at the really rare ones.

    Just a thought or two. Also, don’t forget shortcuts in your scripts: rather than “arrived” just “arr” or even “A.” “Dep” or just “D” for departed, etc.:


    • Hi Skip:
      Thanks – I’m trying. I’m still worried about timing. For example, if someone does a “di-space-dit” too fast, it looks like a “di-dit”, which as you know is an “I” used to acknowledge a transmission. If they do it too slowly – “di-spaaaaccceee-dit” – that could be misconstrued as an “E”, followed by another “E”.
      Sounders! One thing at a time, Skip! I’ll stick with tones for now since a “dit” and a “dah” sound different. I actually have a working sounder and key on a practice board, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how one tells the difference between a “clunk” and a “clunk”…

      • It becomes clear after a while. As you said, there is a different sound when the armature closes and when it returns to its rest position. But, don’t get too bogged down with details. If it ceases to be fun, then why do it? On my railroad, I may use one of the programs and a script file and have it run in the background very subtly for atmosphere. Besides, I usually will be oprating solo, so no sense insetting up a real telegraph system, eh?


  2. Trevor,

    I can TRULY appreciate what you are doing here with the Morse, but I’m kinda glad that I’m not in your shoes!

    I model the D&H in September of 1952, and the segment of the line I model was the Erie’s Jefferson Division. The Erie owned the line, but the D&H operated, maintained and dispatched it. Erie ran three scheduled freights a day, whereas the D&H ran 24. Erie trains operated via D&H Dispatcher, ETT, and not their own.

    The line was a HUGE pusher district in both directions, but fortunately, all communication was done via phone in ’52. Here’s a shot an Erie pusher pair at the southbound siding @ Sink Hole. Note the pole-mounted box with the “T”, affectionately know by both Erie and D&H employees as “The Farmer Phone”…



    Matt Forsyth

    • Hi Matt:

      Good to hear from you. Thanks for joining the conversation…

      I certainly would not recommend using telegraph for most model railways. For amateurs – and most people in this hobby will be amateurs when it comes to telegraphy – trying to dispatch a railroad with dots and dashes would take all the fun out of operating sessions. A train would probably make it across the division before the first order was successfully issued, repeated and made complete.

      That said, it’ll work fine for my layout. The portion of the prototype that I’m modelling was entirely within Yard Limits and hosted one train per day – a mixed train (M233 / M238) – so train orders weren’t really an issue. Even on those rare occasions when I have enough fellow operators to run a second train, that train – a freight extra – would simply pay attention to the schedule for M233 / M238 and stay out of its way according to the rules of Time Table and Train Order operation.

      At the time I’m modelling, the telegraph was probably only used to OS trains. That makes implementing it on my layout a relatively straight-forward exercise, because the OS process followed a standard template. There just aren’t the variables that one would encounter trying to issue a train order, so it’s easy to script for the amateurs among us.

      Good thing you’re using phones! πŸ™‚

  3. Railroad Morse? Is he the railroad equivalent of Inspector Morse of the British police?
    It is neat you are trying to be so authentic. On Santa Fe’s Alma branch in my operating era, May 1943, they didn’t use telegraph, but phones instead.

  4. Trevor,

    Thanks for the warm welcome.

    Again, “hats off” for such attention to detail and fidelity to the prototype. I’m also very fond of your large scale Pettibone-Mulliken type switch stands mounted on the fascia. Are they throwing Bullfrog manual switch machines?

    Would love to do something like this myself, but would need several Bethlehem New Century ground throws too.

    Not sure if you were there, but I was in attendance at last year’s “S” National in Scranton; a guest of Dan Navarre.


    • Hi Matt:

      The switch stands are indeed throwing Bullfrog manual switch machines. I’ve written about these on the blog quite a bit under the Turnout Control category. The switch stand manufacturer also offers a ground throw, which I used to control the coal track derail in Port Rowan. Both styles required modifications – the ground throw more than the switch stand – but they shouldn’t challenge someone with your skills and they definitely convey the tactile impression of bending the iron.

      No, I didn’t make it to Scranton – although several of my friends in the S Scale Workshop did, and took their Free-mo style layout for everyone to see. Dan’s a good guy – glad you know each other.


  5. One of the oddities of my railroad is they decide to use telephone in 1904. This was because of an argument between our road’s president R. Cornelius McGregor and the local telegraph company.

    Cornelius is always pushing the envelope, such as trying out a locomotive with a generator and electric head lights as the railroad’s third locomotive. This puts him somewhat ahead of the two gauge railroads in Maine who mostly waited to World War I or later. But then he also jumped the gun on adding lead trucks to Forney Locomotives, which the other ones would not start until 1907. Actually he was ahead of his time in recognizing doing something cheaply to save money in the short run, could be rather expensive on the along run. Not that his stock holders always appreciated the lower dividends. However his staff did. He even provided bonuses for good ideas from his workers.

  6. Trevor, this is great stuff. I am following your progress with great interest.

    I too intend to have a telegraph system of sorts on the layout. My thinking is that the telegraph will really just be a sound effect. I recently acquired a railroad morse sounder. I am planning on using it to create sounds of the actual messages that the dispatcher writes. The dipatcher will type the messages into a computer that will translate it to railroad morse code. The sounder will play the message.

    Since I do not plan to have an operator position on the layout, the dispatcher will carry a hand written copy of the message to the appropriate station on the railroad.

    I haven’t quite figured out the OS side yet, as I don’t think I want the conductors typing messages, a job that the operator would normally do. I am curious to see how your operation develops. Maybe I will I change my mind and add that task to the conductor’s job.

    One oddity on my layout is that all trains stop at all stations to check for orders. They did not use train order boards in my time period.

    • Hi Bernie:
      Thanks for writing. I’ll be interested to watch how you implement this on your layout.
      OS-ing: Did you ever get a chance to run on Andrew’s DSP&P layout? I was unsure about using telegraph keys and having my operators doing this work – until I tried it on Andrew’s layout. It was easy and fun – it really added atmosphere to the experience of running a train over the line, and I wasn’t at all bothered by changing hats from “conductor” to “agent/operator”.

      • I never got to try Andy’s morse system, though he did show it to me one time and explain it.

        I found a web site that converts text to morse. Listening to it for a while makes me realize that your approach may be better, that is actually have the conductors OS in morse. It is more complex, but it does give them more to do. I need to use two man crews so more work for each crew man is better. Also, implementing a telegraph system that doesn’t used microprocessors might be easier, even though I was looking forward to learning about Arduino’s.

        • Hi Bernie:

          I suspect it’ll add to the uniqueness of operating on a Civil War-era layout. I’m sure that like me, most of your operators will sound like first-time dance lesson students – we’ll plod and pound our way through the exercise. But one does get better at it. And developing a simplified system – in which one only has to transmit two to four letters, and one gets to pick from a set menu of choices – will make it easier for everyone to understand.

          When I implemented this, I kept in mind that few of my operators are telegraphers – and even those who knew Morse at one time (because they worked on the railroad) haven’t used it in decades so they’re very rusty. Andrew Dodge’s advice to keep it simple really is the key.

          As for microprocessors, etc. – Morse keys and sounders are as simple as can be. I highly recommend the oscillator kit I got from Morse Express (written about in this post). It was easy – and fun – to build and it works well. Morse Express also has keys. They’re new – so they’ll set you back a little bit – but they work reliably and they’re easy to adjust if necessary.

          I’m looking forward to following your implementation on your blog.


          • We’re not all rusty! “MorseKOB” allows us to telegraph over the Internet.

            As to finding suitable keys, keep in mind that for a real telegraph circuit, you will need keys with a “shorting bar” to keep the series circuit working. You could alternatively, just add a toggle switch or knife switch that shorts out the contacts on the key. I checked eBay and there are still some J38 military keys available for around $20 – 30. In the 1940’s and 50’s they were a dime a dozen surplus, but the supply is dwindling, apparently.

            As to Civil War, the US Military devised a simplified “dot” code for their inexperienced operators. Most of the operators were civilians who used regular Morse code.


          • Thanks for the additional info, Skip. You’re right – not everybody is rusty. But the guys I know who used to do this stopped doing it a long time ago.
            I solved the shorting bar issue by wiring my keys in parallel – something one can do when the distances between keys are measured in feet, not miles. That said, all of my keys have a shorting bar – so maybe I’ll go back and wire them in series…
            The simplified dot code is interesting. Thanks. That will be very useful for Bernie – and could be useful for a lot of hobbyists looking to add a working telegraph network to their layout, regardless of era.
            I take it that the “1” is a short dot and “2” is long? Or is each dot sounded?
            eg: Would “W” be “dah-dah-di-dah” or “di-dit di-dit dit di-dit”?
            Thanks again – I learn so much through doing this blog…

  7. Skip,
    Thanks for the tip on the Civil War code. I need to study that more carefully.

    There are a group of guys that reenact ACW telegraphy. One of them lives near me in Baltimore, MD. I need to reconnect with them. Perhaps they can come to the op sessions and run the telegraph system!

    In any case, I need to start getting the stuff that I will need to pull this off.

  8. It’s all about dots ! …… 2 dots, slight space 1 dot, etc. So you would have to use the code sheet as a reference (I suppose after a while a person might be able to memorize it….) I mentioned it for Bernie primarily, but suppose you could make up your own code sheet so that “OS” was, say, 1 dot, 2 dots, 1 dot, Having to decode the transmissions wouldn’t be very efficient, but using a code sheet at each end, you could send and receive scripted messages.

    Just a thought – learning the code might be easier, which is probably why the dot code became history.


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