Communication and Information

Signals – Structures – Time

Railways carry three things: passengers, freight and information.

The Telegraph

We all know about the passengers and freight. Information is also important. Instant communication is vital to train scheduling and operations and was a problem back in the 1800s. The solution was a switch that could transmit a series of dots and dashes over a wire to a receiver at the other end. The inventor, Samuel Morse, sequenced the dots and dashes into an alphabet and the telegraph became an integral part of the railway.

Station agents and telegraphers used Morse Code to relay information about arrivals, departures, changes in schedules or train orders. For the first time in history, complicated messages were sent and instantly received over hundreds of miles.


Running two trains in opposite directions on one track presents a problem. Thirty trains a day in both directions is complicated. The railways had to come up with a way for dispatchers to communicate with train crews and, over the years, they developed a system of trackside signals. The first signals were flags and they developed into semaphores, wooden arms on a hinge which told the crews if it was safe to proceed. Now we use coloured light signals that tell the crew how fast they should run and what they can expect at the next signal. They might expect a clear line so they can run at track speed, a restriction so they have to slow down or a move into a siding, or a red signal telling them to stop.

Our communications collection

Our communications car holds quite a collection of telegraph keys, receivers and signal equipment which tells the story of how trains were dispatched and organized starting from the station ball signal through semaphores right up to the modern tri-colour light system. We can show you a telegram pay phone where you could send messages through a railway telegraph as well as the telescopic connectors which a caboose crew could use while en route to talk with the station agent or dispatcher through the telephone line beside the track.


The old St. James Station that once sat beside Portage Avenue on the Canadian National Oak Point Subdivision. The line ran north for 157 miles through Manitoba’s Interlake region and serviced grain elevators and businesses in towns like Grosse Isle, Lundar and Ashern. The terminal was at the Gypsumville quarry where the train crews picked up hopper cars loaded with gypsum and pulled them south to Winnipeg where the mineral cargo is used to make wallboard.

St. James station, a preserved example of a typical rural railway station, is now owned and operated by the Prairie Dog Central Railway, where visitors may ride an excursion train that runs from Inskter Junction to Grosse Isle, Manitoba during the summer.

The railway station became the heart of town. It’s where you got your ticket and boarded the train. It’s where you arrived again and picked up your luggage. It was where the mail was sent and arrived. It was connected to the freight depot where you delivered merchandise that was shipped to the buyer. It was close to the local elevator where farmers brought grain and it was loaded on cars for transport. It was the telegraph where you could send a telegram to someone half a country away and you knew it was there within minutes. The telegraph was also how the local newspaper collected the national and international news. The town railway station was the connection to the wider world.

Via Union Station

In the cities, railway stations were impressive buildings, architectural statements of importance. Via Union Station in Winnipeg was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same architectural firm that designed Grand Central Station in New York City. It was a joint project of the Canadian Northern, National Transcontinental and Grand Trunk Pacific Railways. Ultimately these railways amalgamated to form Canadian National. The station also serviced trains from the Great Northern who ran between Winnipeg and Minneapolis. It’s now home to Via Rail and was designated an historic site in 1976.

Construction of Union Station began in 1908 and was completed in 1911. It’s an example of Beaux-Arts architecture influenced by the Beaux-Arts school in France. It shows Roman influence through the use of hierarchy of spaces from “Noble Spaces” such as grand entrances and staircases to “Utilitarian Spaces” like the train shed.

We’re located in Via Union Station. Even though we’re currently closed, you can still walk through the magnificent rotunda on your way to The Forks and stand in the Roman inspired dome where millions of people have left from or arrived in Winnipeg. Then you can walk through the concourse, the waiting area where Via passengers wait before they board The Canadian to destinations across Canada or The Hudson Bay to Churchill, Canada’s most northern passenger train.

The station clock and standard time

The station clock is set to standardized time and it will register the same time as Virden, Brandon, Minaki, Kenora and Dryden. This wasn’t always the case. Standardized time and time zones were developed by the railways and it was vital for coordinating trains running over long distances. It’s just as vital for dispatching work crews who maintain and fix track. Anyone on the running and maintenance crews will have a standard railway watch set to the local station time.