Willis Lamm's
Traffic Signal Collection


Railroads were an important element in many early towns and it was not unusual for railroads and motor vehicles to share the same rights of way. Railroad tracks often ran down the center of multi-lane streets. When traffic signals began to be installed, cars could not be held up at a red light if a train was rumbling down the street.

Most often a single track would go down the center of the roadway, straddling the center line or running down a two way left turn lane. Double tracks would usually run down the left hand thru lanes on either side of the center line or center divide.

Sometimes the tracks would run along a shoulder of the roadway, too close for practical installation of railroad warning devices but causing a definite conflict between approaching trains and turning motor vehicles. Approaching trains might not be within the field of vision of many drivers, particularly considering the smaller windows common to vehicles of the 20s and 30s. A driver attentive to watching a traffic signal might not observe several tons of train approaching from the rear or from an oblique angle. Traffic signal displays had to be modified when trains approached.

The actual signal sequences varied by municipality however the general trend was to force the intersection into all red flash when a train approached. Trains would move pretty slowly on city streets with their switchyard bells ringing and blowing their horns and the all red flash would allow vehicles ahead of the train to sort things out and get clear of the tracks. One has to remember that in those days warning lights at railroad crossings were relatively rare and crossing gates were even more rare.

Occasionally an intersection that included train tracks would have an additional display to remind motorists why the intersection went into all red flash. I remember most often red neon "RXR" signs that would light up when a train approached.

A center line track that becomes a shoulder track

Repro RXR display.

Single signal heads with red or amber incandescent "RXR" lettered roundel lenses were also used at highway intersections that included rail traffic. The "intersection" in the collection uses a reproduction lens in a standard signal section.

The advent of computerized train and traffic controls have done away with all red flash at most intersections. Modern controllers can "calculate" the speed of an approaching train and provide green displays for vehicles in the train's direction of travel while displaying red indications to all other approaches.

View the old timey railroad preempt on YouTube.

This "intersection" is part of a five intersection coordinated system. When the preempted signal is released, it returns to arterial green to clear arterial traffic. The cross street will then be given minimum green times until the signal falls back into sequence with the other signals in the system.

More displays will be presented as signals are restored and controllers are assembled.

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