Railway Signalling and Operations FAQ: Operating Documents: General Principles

Railway Signalling and Operations

Operating Documents: General Principles

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The description below is heavily influenced by the practices of the PRR and successor railroads. Anyone familiar with practices on other railroads, please email me.

General Comments

The degree of documentation that a railroad needs to publish obviously varies by the size of the railroad, number of employees, and amount of traffic. :wq

Book of Rules

General operating rules were contained in the rulebook. Rulebooks for many/most railroads used to be based on a set of standard rules promulgated by the Association of American Railroads. Each railroad saw fit to modify the AAR rules when and where needed, and to include a (usually large) subset of AAR rules in their own rules. The reason for the striking similarity of rule numbering and wording across many railroads' rulebooks, at least into the 1960s, is exactly this. Certainly the eastern [U.S.] railroads based their rules upon AAR; I'm less familiar with the rules of western roads.

Most railroads supplemented this general book of rules with separate Air Brake Rules, Safety Rules, and so forth. These additional rules were published in separate books or together with the Book of Rules. Electrified railroads included some operating instructions for electrified territory. [Tower] operators, conductors, and others may have also had separate books of rules or instructions pertaining only to them.

Employee Timetable and Special Instructions

This document is often referred to simply as the "timetable". This name is obviously a holdover from the times when the timetable portion was actually a significant portion of the book. The timetable remained of substantial size for some RRs as late as the 1960s but is now significant only for the Northeast Corridor ETT put out by Amtrak. Timetables were also important when the timetable actually governed train operation. That's almost entirely not true anymore, though I suspect tourist railroads (e.g., Strasburg RR) operate under timetable authority.

The second portion of this document, the Special Instructions, gave specific application (or lack of application) of the rules at various locations. Each railroad organized their SIs differently (see below); an example is provided in another document. Most (all?) railroads published the Special Instructions together with the Timetable.

New ETTs were published whenever there were major changes, or when a large number of minor changes had accumulated -- perhaps once or twice a year. Thus, each new ETT includes the changes in the General Orders (see below) since the previous ETT. Timetables are numbered consecutively, the numbering scheme being restarted from 1 on occasion.

General Orders

General Orders are ETT/SI updates. These get published periodically, on an as-needed basis, and act as a summary of the Bulletin Orders (when used; see below) since the last General Order.

When ETTs were published in paperback book form, General Orders were printed on gum-backed paper, like postage stamps. Sections were torn apart and pasted into the ETT, covering the page or portion of a page that was superseded. A summary of the changes with each General Order was often provided and would be pasted into empty pages in the back of the ETT.

On occasion, the General Order instructed that a portion of the ETT was to be modified in ink. These were usually very simple, minor modifications or corrections, or else were wholesale removals of information, such as the annullment of a train.

A listing of the text of General Orders is posted in various accessible locations, such as yard offices, interlocking towers, etc. The list of locations posting General Orders is found in the ETT.

General Orders are numbered consecutively, the number being based on the ETT number. One scheme is for the General Order number to be added to the timetable number times 100. The first issue of Timetable 7, e.g., is simultaneously General Order 701. Subsequent General Orders are then 702, 703, etc., until Timetable 8 comes out.

Bulletin Orders

Bulletin Orders are updates to the last General Order. I've most frequently seen them published weekly, though individual styles vary. Some railroads (e.g. Amtrak) publish the full complement of ETT changes each week. Others (e.g. Conrail) publish the full complement (typically 4-6 pages) monthly (a "Summary Bulletin Order"), with weekly (1 or 2 page) updates to the monthly update.

Division Notices

These are the least important of operating documents, and in fact, often contain little to no information about operation per se. A recent Conrail Division Notice discussed the hay fever (allergies) that employees can expect with the coming of spring. Other Division Notices contain notification of, e.g., bridge walkways that are removed or slippery and other new or changed hazards along the tracks.

Special Cases

Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central, Amtrak, Conrail

PRR and successor railroads organized the SIs in a way that no doubt made sense to management but was very difficult to use. One thousand was added to the rule number to obtain the Special Instruction number. PRR then appended a code for the division and a sequential number. Thus, the first SI referable to rule 180 for all regions was found in Special Instruction 1180-A1.

Penn Central maintained this organization and the region-by-region timetables. Late in Penn Central, a conversion to loose-leaf pages in binders was effected. Amtrak and Conrail, and later SEPTA, continued this ETT paper type, with Amtrak switching to a smaller format (and smaller font) than Conrail. GOs would then be printed on similar, punched sheets of paper, and employees would replace the old pages in the ETT with new pages.

Initially, PC published GOs frequently, including even such mundane stuff as temporary speed restrictions. This was found to be too cumbersome, and "Bulletin Orders" were invented. Bulletin Orders are printed on standard paper and also update the ETT from G.O. to G.O. Each G.O. then becomes merely a compilation of previous Bulletin Orders. Bulletin Orders are numbered consecutively, the number being based on the Timetable number.

Conrail has since stopped publishing update GOs and now publishes an ETT only once yearly, sometimes even less often than that. In 1995-6, CR split the ETT into a System ETT, common for the entire system, plus separate divisional ETTs/SIs for each of the 5 divisions. Every employee is to carry the system ETT and those divisional ETTs he needs.

Amtrak and SEPTA still have significant timetable (=passenger train) schedule changes each spring and fall. These railroads continue to publish update GOs at least once, if not more frequently, per year.

PRR successors have followed the example of SEPTA and have gone to a more sensical rail line-by-rail line system. Each line is shown with its stations, then that line's speed limits and speed restrictions, equipment restrictions, and signal rules are listed, followed by everything else. In this manner, the engineer need not constantly turn from page to page within the ETT just to get the information he needs about one stretch of track.

Mark's Railroad-Related Stuff
Railroad Books of Rules and Signalling: A Home Page
Signalling FAQ (prototype)
Operating Documents: General Principles

Mark D. Bej, M.D.