Standard Time essential for Safe and Efficient Train Movement
Time is an important factor in railway operations. Safe movement of trains over single track has been accomplished using timetables, which depends on use of a consistent time and train crews knowing the precise time. In the early years of railroad operation this was not an easy task. During the nineteenth century several major accidents occurred because of differences in time. Safe operation and success of the growing railroads depended on keeping time more consistently and precisely.
During the early years most trains were operated on a single track, with sidings provided at intervals to allow trains to pass each other. Railroads operated using a timetable in order to avoid collisions between trains and to move trains efficiently over the railroad lines. Using a timetable system, trains can only operate along a section of track in pre-arranged time periods. When trains are moving in opposing directions on a single-track railroad, meets are scheduled, where one train must pull into a siding and wait so the other can pass. In scheduling trains most railroads specified a minimum time interval to allow trains time to pull in and out of sidings and stations.
Solar Time varies with Distance
During the early growth years of the United States and Canada, time of day was a local matter, every community and town world set its official clock, if it had one, or a well-known clock (on a church steeple or in a jeweler's window, for example), according to the local position of the sun. This served adequately until the introduction of the steam engine, the telegraph, and rail travel, which made it possible to travel fast enough over long distances to require almost constant re-setting of timepieces, as a train progressed in its daily run through several towns. When traveling to the east or to the west, actual solar time would change by one minute every twelve and 1/2 miles. Sun time could differ between sides of a large city. These differences often let to confusion.
In some cities, such as Kansas City, jewelers took their own readings which could vary as much as 20 minutes from another jewelers reading. Kansas City resolved this problem by dropping a large ball from a high mast at the official noon.
Passengers and shippers, as well as railway officers and employees responsible for operation of trains, sale of tickets, and making of schedules, were often confused and bewildered by the multiplicity of time standards throughout the country. Mistakes and errors were frequent and sometimes disastrous.
Time Schedules require Standardized Time
Timetable operation required that all moving trains use a standardized time. Railroad time was first introduced on the Great Western Railway in England in 1840, when a number of different local times were synchronised and a single standard time applied. Railway time was adopted by all of the other railway companies in Great Britain over the following two to three years to using local time for London or "London Time" set at Greenwich by the Royal Observatory, also known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Each railroad in the United States and Canada began to try to standardize time based on the local time standard adopted by its home city or an important city on its line. Some of the western railroads used Chicago time, others used St. Louis time. The Union Pacific operated on at least six different time standards, based on sun time at Omaha, Jefferson City, St. Joseph, Denver, Laramie and Salt Lake City. When it was noon in Chicago it was 11:50 in St. Louis and 11:27 in Omaha. Where different railroads connected each railroad used its own time standard to govern the arrival and departure of trains.
Use of the telegraph improved the consistence of time at railway stations. William Bond & Son of Boston, started using telegraphed time signals from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge to provide authoritative time signals to the Boston area railroads beginning in 1851. A similar service began in New York around the same time.
John C. Adams firm also telegraphed the correct local time to all Chicago & Galena Union Railway Stations starting in 1864 which continued until the Chicago railroads began receiving the time signals directly from the Dearborn Observatory in 1869-1870.
Railroad Standard Time, Time Zones Introduced
The General Time Convention was held in Chicago by the railroads in 1883, delegates were asked to develop a better and more uniform time system to govern railroad operations. On October 11, 1883, the new Standard Time System was adopted, superseding some 49 operating times. The Standard Time System, proposed by William F. Allen, established four equal time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) in the U.S. and Canada, each zone exactly one hour ahead of the zone to its west, allowing the railroads to standardize railroad schedules, based upon mean sun-time on the 75th, 90th, 105th, and 120th meridians west of Greenwich. These four meridians are approximately on the longitudes of Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, and Fresno. Allen was Secretary of the General Time Convention and Managing Editor of the Travellers' Official Guide to the Railways.
Nearly all the railroad companies, most cities and influential observatories such as Yale and Harvard supported the plan. The Standard Time System was inaugurated on Sunday, November 18, 1883, newspapers referred to that day as "The Day of Two Noons." At twelve o'clock noon each railroad station clock was reset as standard-time noon was reached within each time zone. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was transmitted via telegraph, the U.S. Naval Observatory began signaling the new time standard. Train crews were instructed as to what change to make in their watches. They were also instructed to check their watches with the telegraph operator upon arrival at the next scheduled stop.
There was no legislative enactment or ruling, the railroads simply adopted a zone system encompassing North America, and assumed the public would follow. Most people simply accepted the new time, but a number of cities and counties refused to accept "railroad time", which, after all, had not been made law. Standard time remained a local matter until March 1918, when it was made law as part of the introduction of daylight saving.
The General Time Convention, an association of railroad superintendents, had been initially established in 1872 to approve train schedules. During the 1880's the General Time Convention worked to develope a Standard Code of Railroad Operating Rules, an industry code that is still in use. In 1891 the General Time Convention renamed itself the American Railway Association, now the Association of American Railroads.
The railroads installed a Standard Clock in major stations. These were high quality clocks maintained to strict standards. In order to ensure these standard clocks were always correct, a time signals was transmitted by telegraph once every 24 hours, using the resources of the U.S. Naval observatory. The correction signal took the form of a string of dots at one second on, one second off intervals and was transmitted via Morse telegraphy for three minutes prior to the hour (12:00 p.m. EST). This was followed by a 10 second silent period, then a dash at precisely 12:00 p.m. Station agents were thus given a way to spike (correctly set) the clocks at their location.
Ensuring that the railroad workers who were responsible for the movement of trains knew the accurate time while the train was moving was also critical to safe railroad operation using timetables. Several major accidents pointed out that inaccurate watches created differences in perceived time, leading to accidents, loss of lives and goods. In the early years, reliable watches were expensive and railroad companies differed in their approach to this problem.
Following the adoption of the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards, watch manufactures manufactured watches to meet railroad requirements. In order to ensure accuracy and facilitate safe railroad operation almost all railroads required periodic watch inspection. Each railroad either established their own specific watch requirements and had its own inspection service, or contracted an inspection service to ensure that all watches in use by specified personnel meet standard requirements. Not all watches manufactured as meeting railroad standards were approved by all railroads. Learn about railroad watches.
Train dispatchers, conductors, enginemen, brakemen, yardmasters and foremen of yard engines were required to equip themselves with approved railway standard watches. Conductors and enginemen were always to compare their watches before starting on a run or before commencing work each day, other members of the train crew were to compare their watches with the conductor's or engineman's watch at the first opportunity.
Today the use of radios, automatic block signals, and central computer tracking of trains has lessened the role of the railroad watch on many railroads, yet watch requirements still remain important to safe railroad operation.
For Additional Reading:
Bartky, Ian R.. Selling the True Time: Nineteenth century timekeeping in America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8047-3874-2.