Use of headlights during daytime operations : LUSENET : ACL and SAL Railroads Historical Society : One Thread


I was wondering when locomotives began using headlights in daytime operations? I have seen photos taken of steam locomotives with no headlights on during the day, and other photos where they appeared to be on?

Did the SAL and ACL use headlights in daytime voluntary or was a Federal mandate established that required all railroads to do so?

Any help would be appreciated. Being born in 1973 I always remember locomotives using headlights in the daytime.

One other thing I have to mention about locomotive headlights...

I know, or I should say I believe the SD-45's the SCL bought had the rotating headlights, did any other SCL equipment have them? They were really cool at night. I remember my grandmother's house, right beside the railroad. Being waken up at night with a SCL freight bearing down on you and to have that rotating headlight searching out ahead of the train.... When you were 8 years old it almost reminded you of a phantom flying through the night, seaching for those little boys who were supposed to be asleep, instead of waiting up all night to see trains!

Thanks as always, Daniel Edwards

-- Daniel T. Edwards (, March 10, 2004


One response on this subject has suggested that track forces played fast and loose with safety depending on seeing smoke from a steam locomotive before taking action. true, smoke would announce the arrival of a steam locomotive. However, before going to work each day a section foreman went to the nearest open telegraph office to get a "Line-Up" of expected extra trains from the dispatcher. He used an ETT schedule to clear first class trains. He would notify the dispatcher of his working limits for the day, and the dispatcher would issue a work order, or slow order to all affected trains to approach that location under control looking out for a flagman, and to reduce speed to, say 15 MPH between MP so and so looking out for men and equipment. The work was not carried out in the haphazard manner suggested by the contributor to this subject. I never recall taking a track gang by surprise on any trip that I ever made as a fireman. We were always flagged in plenty of time to bring the train to a stop if that had been necessary. In automatic semaphore train stop territory a section foreman always had access to a piece of high conductive copper wire with alligator clips on each end which could easily be used to drop a red signal in the direction from which trains would approach, which, with an approach indication displayed by the next signal, gave him a two mile window of protection against trains.

-- Bill Sellers (, March 15, 2004.

The answer among the signal and maintenance of way employees was that the visibility and approach of steam locomotives could be determined by the smoke. The headlight on diesels during daylight hours provided a means also for visibility purposes and determining an estimated approach.

No radios back then.... Getting work equipment clear of the track depended on how quick you could see the approaching train.

-- Curtis E. Denmark Jr. (, March 12, 2004.

Interesting topic - the 2nd quarter 2000 issue of Lines South had an article by Wayne Long on modeling ACL headlights, and went into some aspects of this. At the time we couldn't pinpoint exactly when ACL started the consistent use of headlights in the daytime. The 1950 rulebook (which is quoted in that article) requires headlights only at night, but I don't think it prohibited them during the day, and as Bill says, that apparently was done at least on some lines. The photos I have handy show no daytime headlights on steam or diesel up through the early 1950s, but that's just the sample I have handy. The earliest photos at hand showing daytime headlights on are 1953.

Incidentally, photos also show that it wasn't too unusual to see both the regular and Mars light on during the day. Sometimes this was during foggy conditions, but other times, in full bright light.

Like Daniel, I have fond memories of the Mars lights at night, especially when a train was not yet in sight and you could see the arcs sweeping around the horizon. The ACL Mars lights I remember had a "flat" (on its side) figure 8 pattern.

Many new SCL locos got the Mars lights, including into the early Family Lines years. Today, with ditch lights, the Mars lights are pretty much a thing of the past. One very nice "however" for me, living by the ex-B&O line just outside Washington, is that some of the Maryland MARC commuter diesels still use them.

-- Larry Goolsby (, March 11, 2004.

Dan: When I entered engine service on the Atlantic Coast Line in 1941 it was standard practice to burn the headlight during daylight hours on both freight and passenger trains, both steam and diesel, and was not a local option. E-3's and E-7's were equipped with Mars headlights, but on passenger trains the practice was to burn the stationary headlight only during daylight hours and use the Mars light at night. Also, it was common practice when meeting another train, whether it be daylight or dark, to dim the headlight until the two locomotives had passed each other.

-- Bill Sellers (, March 11, 2004.


Good question! Apparently daylight use of headlights was optional until the very early 1950's or late 1940's. At that time, the ICC mandated the use of headlights to improve train visibility.

The rotating headlights you refer to are commonly known as "Mars" lights, as one of the companys that produced them branded them as such. These lights came in several flavors-they could either operate in a continuous figure 8 with white light, operate in a figure 8 with red light if the train went into emergency or any combination of the two.

I would have to do a search of the locomotive files to determine exactly which classes of power had them, but I do know that the passenger units had them, including the dual use SDP-35 units bought by the Seaboard. I remember riding the vestibule of a late running Sunland in 1966 and seeing the figure 8 illuminating the South Carolina pine scrub lands.

If you are really interested, you may want to go to the publications section of this web site and get copies of the locomotive equipment diagrams and they will have information on the types of headlights used.

-- Michael W. Savchak (, March 10, 2004.

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