Blue Flags

Delano, Jack, photographer. General view of part of the South Water Street freight depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago, Ill. May 1, 1943. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, . The original image has been cropped slightly. The original can be viewed through the link provided.
Delano, Jack, photographer. General view of part of the South Water Street freight depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago, Ill. May 1, 1943. Image retrieved from the Library of Congress. The original image has been cropped slightly. The original can be viewed through the link provided.

A recent discussion in a Yahoo email group centered on using prototype elements to slow down the pace of model railroad operations. I had a Wheeling Freight Terminal operating session on the calendar and wanted to add a twist for operating crews to work around. I recalled the above Jack Delano image that featured blue flag protection on several freight house tracks. A few of these markers were constructed and installed on the layout for the operating session.

Blue flags were used to keep people safe who were working on, in, or under freight cars. These flags were used to restrict access to freight cars or tracks. A simple Google search found this OSHA regulation: The blue flag policy shall be used to mark stationary cars day and night. This policy shall include marking the track in advance of the spotted cars (flag for daytime, light for darkness).

Blue flag protection is a common element used to protect repair in place tracks (RIP) but these were also used to protect freight cars being loaded at freight houses or team yards, or where cars are being loaded or unloaded in industrial sidings.

I made three blue flag markers to use on the Wheeling Freight Terminal. Styrene channel stock was cut a little longer than a railroad tie, with notches cut into the channel side to fit over the rails. A piece of 0.020-inch styrene rod was used to support the blue flag. A hole was drilled into the center of the channel with a #75 drill bit, just to the outside of one rail. The rod was glued into place and carefully bent to hang over the center of the track. A rectangle was cut from a piece of scrap styrene and glued to the end of the rod. When the glue was dry, the face of the rectangle was painted blue with a Sharpie marker.

These three blue flag markers assembled easily in about twenty minutes. They are probably a little larger than what was used on the prototype, but I did want my crews to notice these during an operating session. Here’s a look at the back side.

On the prototype, the blue flags can only be removed by the crew member who placed them. I plan to remove the blue flags after a crew has spotted an initial batch of cars. Crews will not be able to use the tracks with blue flag protection, so they will have to think through their moves and possibly make an extra run to complete the work.

Blue flags protect two tracks at the freight house.

The operating session ran smoothly. The blue flags did cause some extra work for crews due to unavailable tracks but the freight cars were all spotted and pulled in the usual amount of time. I think these added a twist to the session and I’m certain the blue flags will be seen again.

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12 thoughts on “Blue Flags”

  1. Blue flags are a good way to mix up operations on a layout, but remember that they’re only supposed to be displayed while people are actively working on the cars themselves. In the context of your layout (and the Jack Delano photo) that means while people are actively moving into and out of the cars to load or unload them.

    According to the Nickel Plate’s 1943 Operating Rules:
    RULE 26. A blue signal, displayed at one or both ends of an engine, car or train, indicates that workmen are under or about it; when thus protected it must not be coupled to or moved. Each class of workmen will display the blue signals and the same workmen are alone authorized to remove them. Other equipment must not be placed on the same track so as to intercept the view of the blue signals, without first notifying the workmen.

    1. Thanks for the NKP operating rule, Ray. And yes, I reiterated to the crew that the flag cannot be removed as there are people working in and around those cars. I think this was a welcome addition. – Eric

  2. Hi Eric,
    Another great posting….adding blue flags to anyone’s operations is a good way to feel closer to the real thing. Adding more layers of operating realism will never make running trains boring for me 🙂
    With Kind regards

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rick. Adding another layer of realism to the session was the intent and I know the two participants learned something useful for the recent session. I guess you can add these to your terminal activity, too! – Eric

      1. Oh most definitely…the passenger car servicing building spur is just right for this as workers are constantly moving in and out of the heavyweights spotted there. Same goes for express cars at the REA platform as they are being loaded/unloaded. Boxcar loads to the roundhouse siding would also be appropriate. A worker at the cinder pits would get into a gondola that is partially filled with ash and manually shovel the pile down toward the other end of the car. That should be blue-flagged while he is working, but I don’t think I’ll go to that extreme since most of the time the car has no attendant. When we resume ops in the Fall, I will have this implemented. Many Thanks

  3. Eric – Great topic! I use these all the time when I work Frankford East Yard on Tony Koester’s NKP, or at Dave Ramos’ New York Harbor RR. At first, I used “regulation sized” blue push pins, but then I found that not only were they easily missed but just as equally run over, in the search for something better, one day I encountered at a co-worker’s desk these large (some would say TOO large!) blue push pins with a large mushroom head that measure about a 1/2 inch tall by a 1/2 inch wide at the top. (wish I could attach a photo!). These will NOT get missed and will NOT get run over, LOL! the pin is that much stouter, so foam, Homasote and even plywood (all with ballast on top) shouldn’t be a problem to “spike and hold” against a solid shove, at least not in my two above examples. Just wanted to pass that along, though I certainly like your version, too, as it looks a tad more realistic!

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Ralph! I think I had seen blue pins used on Tony’s layout but I needed to use something closer to the track access point where the crews would see the marker. I couldn’t find my push pins so I made these. One operator suggested setting a barrier over the hand throw so the switch could not be used at all, but I like the actual blue flag on the track. BTW, I look forward to your rebooted LV layout ideas. Keep those brain cells working! – Eric

  4. The blue flags kept in a pile at my RIP track were 2 inch long 0.025 music wire with a HO12 x 12 shim brass flag soldered at the top and painted CR blue. Crews knew to route defective cars – mostly grabs and steps – to the RIP track and plug a blue flag into the roadbed for their protection. After the session I knew where to find cars for repair, not in place but at the work bench. Dick Bradley

  5. Hey, another great post and an interesting idea. Dave Abeles uses blue flags on his Onondaga Cutoff on a couple of spurs and it certainly keeps operators awake.

    On related note, doing some quick and dirty online research and up popped a great reference to blue flag rules. Site here:

    Scroll down to the posting July 17, 2006. Copy of the blue flag rules. Down at the bottom of the post is a list of other uses for blue flags — the most prominent being unloading of tank cars. Not sure if you unload tank cars on the WFT, but another use for those who do.

  6. Hah! I think I actually found the answer to Craig’s question about when the use of blue flags started. At least I found a reference that indicates when the use of blue flags was started to be regularized. Which is not exactly the same thing as first used, but close. According to this reference:

    the use of standard colors and in particular blue as the color to protect workmen under or about equipment was originally first codified in the Standard Code of Operating Rules published by the ARA in 1887. Blue flags were apparently Rule 26. Other colors were Red to show danger or stop, Green for caution/go slow and White for safety/go on. For further details, go to the site, scroll down to the heading “Signals.” Actually, the site is full of all kinds of interesting information and you might want to read the rest. Kudos to whomever put this all together.

    As to particular railroads, I guess this depends on whether your prototype adopted the 1887 code (or any of its subsequent revisions) and when and whether or not they adopted Rule 26 in particular. But if the question(speaking purely hypothetically of course 🙂 ) is whether the Housatonic say was using blue flags in 1892, then the answer appears to be maybe but maybe not. However, they certainly could have (and imho should have!) been using the rule.

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