top of page

Whistle while you work

A4 class 60013 “Dominion of New Zealand” (with chime whistle) working an up train to Kings Cross at Hitchin in 1962. Photo: Mike Peart.

Steam whistles on locomotives had their origin in 1833. An accident on the Leicester and Swannington Railway in May 1833 resulted in the locomotive “Samson” running into a horse and cart. The engineman had a coach horn which was blown but the horse driver didn’t hear it. As a result, the railway went to a musical instrument maker in Leicester who produced a steam-operated trumpet which was 18 inches high and 6 inches across at the top end. The “cup” type whistle followed soon afterwards and one was reported in use at the steelworks at Dowlais, South Wales in 1833. Soon after, regulations were introduced to ensure that all steam locomotives were fitted with a working whistle. In later days, some locomotives were fitted with two whistles, a train whistle and a brake whistle.

Locomotive whistles were a vital tool for communication. Using a variety of long, short, “crow” (cock-a-doodle-do) and “pop” (very short) whistles, a lot of options could be communicated. Drivers could use their whistle with train guards, station staff, signalmen, shunters and permanent way staff as well as warning trespassers and, not always successfully, animals on the line. Whistles were sounded when moving off, entering tunnels, when wanting extra braking by the guard, communicating with banking engine drivers, being clear of points, with wrong line working during engineering works, requiring assistance, needing a fresh engine and requesting a stop to take on water. There was even a code for notifying a lineside fire (one crow, one long, one crow) which had to be repeated to staff nearby on the line and at the next station, signal box or level crossing to ensure the message got through. A whole host of standard and local whistle codes were in use for routing movements, moving onto and from fast/main or slow/relief lines, and into and out of engine sheds, yards, sidings and branches.

Controversial I know, but I’ve always thought that the high-pitched whistle on “Flying Scotsman” doesn’t sound right for such a distinguished locomotive. Nigel Gresley, of course, provided his later streamlined locomotives with chime whistles which sound much more appropriate and, dare I say, business-like and manly!

During the 1930s, diesel traction started to appear in Britain in growing numbers. The Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced its streamlined diesel railcars which used electric klaxon-type horns. With the first 18 railcars, complaints had been received from permanent way gangers that when they were working near roads, crossings or road bridges it was hard for them to distinguish between railcar horns and road vehicle horns. Various solutions were tried and in the end eight “Desilux”electric horns were fitted to each railcar - four at each end. They were tuned an octave apart and were sounded alternately to distinguish them from road vehicles. GWR railcar number 4 is in the National Collection.

GWR diesel parcels railcar number 17 loading empty milk churns at Southall in 1936. Photo: courtesy of Great Western Trust.

Noise pollution! An amusing incident took place at Exeter St David’s station in June 1950. Southern Region “West Country” class number 34014 “Budleigh Salterton” arrived in the station whistling and all efforts to stop it failed. The locomotive proceeded still whistling with its train to Barnstaple 39 miles away where a fitter was picked up, and the train then set off to its destination at Ilfracombe a further 16 miles away where the fitter was able to silence to whistle after three hours’ continuous noise. On the return journey from Ilfracombe to Barnstaple the whistle which had to be available started up again and the fitter had no option but to close the valve. A bent valve spindle was later found to be the cause of the problem.

The last Manchester to Bournemouth “Pines Express” to run over the Somerset & Dorset (S & D) route ran on 8th September 1962. This train was hauled by 92220 “Evening Star”, also now in the National Collection. Somerset & Dorset railwaymen were so incensed that “Sabotaged & Defeated” was scrawled on stations along the route. An enthusiasts’ special was stopped en route by a signalman so that a protest petition could be handed over. Poignantly at the time, the Railway Hotel at Evercreech Junction was renamed “The Silent Whistle”.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is the co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and “Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was a founder member of the Great Western Society in 1961.

Friends of the NRM is an independent charity, established in 1977 to support the National Railway Museum. We have raised £1.8m to date in support of the museum in funding, restorations, exhibits and acquisitions of new artefacts. We also support and promote research and educational projects relating to the history and development of railways. Read about Friends contributions here Find about how you can become a Friend of the NRM here

335 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page