Railroad Time Service

Railroad time service is the system within which railroaders involved in the operation of trains were ensured of having the correct time - Standard Time. This was because train movement was based upon time schedules and the actions of the railroaders were defined in relationship to the schedules and the deviation of train movements from the schedules.


Railroad time service had little or nothing to do with getting passengers to their destinations on time (although that was a side benefit). It was all about Safety. With train movements defined by scheduled time, and with employe (correct spelling, used in many older railroad documents) actions linked, by operating rules, to the scheduled time and the amount of deviation from scheduled time, its obvious that all employes involved with the movements of trains must know the correct (standard) time. To not know it could be deadly. The emphasis on safety had been long advertised by the watch companies, as shown in these Waltham, Rockford and Dueber-Hampden ads. The view of the railroad watch (standard watch) as a safety appliance is perhaps best exemplified by an advertising card posted by Jeff Hess. The means to accomplish that end was a time service system that ensured the distribution of standard time and ensured that the Employes' Watches would be able to keep it.

When Did Time Service Rules First Appear?

Time service rules started appearing almost as soon as trains began running to a time schedule. The earliest actions and rules that have come down to us are listed below.

This early account shows the introduction of standard time on one of the earliest railroads in the U.S.:
In May 1834 the chief engineer of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company reported difficulty in attaining regularity in the arrival and departure times of passenger trains running between Charleston and Hamburg, 136 miles away. The problem on this, the longest railway in the world (at that time), was caused by "... the want of a uniform standard of time at the different [station] points." It was resolved "... by placing clocks (at the six stations) ... which being well-regulated and readily accessible to the Engineer and Agent, will enable them to regulate their movements on the road with great accuracy."
"Annual Report of the Directors of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, May 6, 1834, as reprinted in "The Adoption of Standard Time," Ian R. Bartky, Technology And Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 1989, pp. 27-8.

This rule put standard watches into the hands of the railroaders who needed them. It was published at a time before the American watch industry existed. Watches had to be imported from Europe, especially England, and were very expensive.
"Each engineer will be furnished with a watch which shall be regulated by the Station Agent at the commencement of each trip, and must be deposited with him when the engine returns. If not returned in as good order as it was received, the Engineer must pay the expense of repairs."
"Conductors furnished their own watches. ... [The Conductor] will also see that the Engineer has the correct time at starting ..."
"Rules for Passenger Engine Men, "Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Transportation Department of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, 1849, reprinted in "Railroad Timekeepers," Ian R. Bartky, NAWCC Bulletin No. 262, October, 1989, pg. 401, and "Running on Time," Ian R. Bartky, Railroad History No. 159, Autumn, 1988, pp. 23-4.

At the same time, the Utica & Schenectady Railroad noted that its conductors and engineers had to have watches and that those watches had to be compared against Standard Time (see below) by requiring that:
"SECOND: Conductors of trains, and engineers, must compare their watches daily, with the office time at Schenectady, which shall be the standard time."
"INSTRUCTIONS to be strictly observed by persons employed upon trains or at stations." Schenectady, Dec. 17, 1849, reprinted in "The Beginnings of the New York Central Railroad - A History, Frank Walker Stevens, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York/London, 1926.

By these two rules, the railroad took steps to ensure that their conductors had watches that met the railroad's requirements for accuracy and reliability, and provided for certified loaner watches to be used by the conductors while their watches are being repaired. Almost all watches were still being imported and were still very expensive. It is very possible that watches discussed in these rules were issued to the conductors by the railroad.
7. Conductors will submit their watches to Bond & Sons, 17 Congress street, Boston, for examination, and procure from them a certificate of reliability, which will be handed to the Superintendent.

8. Conductors will report to Messrs Bond any irregularity in the movements of their watches, and they will clean, repair and regulate them, at the expense of the Corporation, furnishing Conductors with reliable watches in the interim.

Boston & Providence Railroad
, Standard Time, August 31, 1853, reproduced in: Selling The True Time, Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America, Ian R. Bartky, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2000, pg.29

Here, the railroad addressed the source and distribution of standard time.
"Standard Time - 1. The Standard time of the Road is the clock in the Ticket Office at Adrian. Conductors and Engineers must carry a watch, which must be compared and regulated daily by the standard. Engineers and Conductors West of White Pigeon will compare their time daily with those running East of White Pigeon. Station Agents, Track Master, etc., will compare and receive the time from Conductors."
Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad, General Rules and Regulations, September 20, 1857, reproduced in , The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway, David McLellan and Bill Warrick, Transportation Trails, Polo, IL, 1989, Pg 29.

Are Time Service Programs Still in Effect?

Modern communications and Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) have greatly reduced the need for railroaders to carry an expensive watch. Today, most modest quartz watches will keep time as well as, or better than, the typical mechanical standard watch. And, the dictates of efficient business management caused the demise of extensive and expensive watch inspection programs that were no longer needed. Some railroads still required standard watches in the Fairly Recent Past, and may still require them today, but most have reduced their rules down to something similar to this timetable note:
"The General Code of Operating Rules, effective October
25, 1985, is supplemented, modified or amended as follows ... Rule 2 supplemented by adding: While on duty, employes governed by the General Code of Operating Rules, except those employed in an office where a standard clock is located, must have and use a reliable watch capable of indicating time in hours, minutes and seconds.
Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., Eastern Region, Texas Division, Timetable No. 1, May 15, 1988. (Courtesy John Scott)
Comparing this to Standard Time rule No. 2 in the NYC 1956 Rules of the Operating Department, it can be seen that the phrase "... railroad grade watch, for which there must be a prescribed certificate on file with the railroad." no longer exists.

In more recent times, there are the NORAC Operating Rules (Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee). Railroads using these rules (members) include:
Former Delaware & Hudson, now owned by Canadian Pacific
Norfolk Southern
New York, Susquehanna & Western
NJ Transit
Indiana Harbor Belt

In the Seventh Edition, Effective January 17, 2000 is:
"2. Standard Time, Standard Clocks
Standard Time will apply, and standard clocks must indicate the correct time. The employee assigned to check clocks at a location must set clocks to the correct time, if necessary, once each day the office is open.

3. Correct Time
Employees whose duties are affected by the Timetable must use a reliable watch. Before starting each tour of duty they must set their watch with a standard clock.

If they do not have access to a standard clock, they must compare watches with another employee who has determined the correct time.

More recent railroad rules pertaining to time and watches were posted by wepouaout on 22-Feb-17:

Norfolk Southern Operating Rules, May 1, 2008.

General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR), Seventh Edition, April 1, 2015.

Canadian Rail Operating Rules, December 14, 2016.

Uniform Time Service Rules

There have never been a uniform set of time service rules that were followed by all of the railroads. Each railroad set it's own rules to meet its own needs. Since the same principles were involved, the rules were similar from railroad to railroad, but there were some important differences. One glaring example is that it is widely believed that, in the post 1906-1908 era, watches had to have been adjusted to 5 positions in order to have been accepted into service, as seen at the bottom of section 4 of the April 1, 1915 New York Central Rules. However, in 1921, the Santa Fe Railway was only requiring that watches be adjusted to three positions.

Additionally, even on the same railroad the rules constantly evolved from the earliest days to the present time. Continuing the example of the number of positions to which a watch must have been adjusted, it was reported that on the Santa Fe in 1938, watches had to be adjusted to five positions to enter service (Santa Fe watch inspector David M. Nicholson, on page 19 of his book Santa Fe: How It Governed Its Timepieces Throughout the System, see references, below).

What is Standard Time?

Each railroad designated a source of time as Standard Time. Originally, the source was a high precision clock (often referred to as the Master Clock) against which other clocks and certain railroaders' (employes') standard watches were compared for accuracy. A time authority, frequently using a time signal from an observatory, would provide a means for ensuring that the Master Clock was accurate. After a while, the observatory time signals were sent out to the railroad's locations over telegraph wires. The act of getting this time to all of the locations and employes who needed it is called the distribution of standard time.

At first, the time was distributed by the conductors, as noted in a description of the Running Regulations of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, 1853 and in the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad rule on Standard Time quoted above. By the 1880s, the time was obtained from local or regional observatories and distributed via telegraph as described in an 1880 New York Times article and as specified by the South Carolina Railway in 1885. By the turn of the century, observatory time signals were nationally distributed; in Canada by McGill Observatory in Montreal; and in the U.S. by the Navel Observatory in Washington, D.C., via Western Union; as seen in these 1901 TNO Rules and 1956 NYC Rules.

Standard Clocks

Each important location on the railroad, stations, depots, etc., would have a clock designated as being a standard clock, such as required in Section No. 14 of the 1892 L&N Rules. Each standard clock had an employe responsible for comparing the time shown on that clock to standard time and posting a notice of its deviation from standard time. The notice of deviation would often be a Placard displaying the number of seconds deviation and indication of slow or fast.

Railroaders Had To Have A Standard Watch

Railroaders had to have a special watch, referred to by those in the watch and jewelry trade as a railroad watch but referred to by the railroads and railroaders as a standard watch. But the watches were only a part of a system of ensuring that the operating personnel had access to, and operated using, the correct time (Standard Time).

Who Had To Carry A Standard Watch?

Although the person who originally owned a watch may have worked for a railroad, that watch is not necessarily what could properly be called a railroad watch, actually a standard watch. The use of a standard watch was only required of a portion of the railroad employes, usually those directly involved in running the trains, or controlling, or affecting, the operation of trains. Other employes not under time service rules carried whatever watches they liked.

Typical lists of those required to carry a standard watch appear in an 1892 report of Time Inspection on the Illinois Central Railroad and as Standard Time Rule No. 2 in a 1901 Edition of Canadian Pacific Railway General, Train, and Interlocking Rules. A later list of Burlington Route employes required to carry a standard watch is shown in the 1949 CB&Q Rules. In 1955, this rule showed up requiring yardmen to carry a standard watch:
"Article 20 - (c) Yardmen entering the service must be able to read and write, will be subject to and required to pass uniform examination and will comply with the regulation governing the use of standard watches."
"Agreement Between The Texas and Pacific Railway Company; Texas Pacific - Missouri Pacific Terminal Railroad of New Orleans; and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen"
"Schedule of Pay Allowed and Rules Governing Yardmen - Rewritten effective as of December 1, 1955"
For reference, the Union Pacific RR website has concise explanations of Past and Present Railroad Job Descriptions.

The Employes Were Prohibited from Setting Their Watches

It doesn't do any good to ensure that the railroaders have very accurate and repeatable watches, set to standard time, if they can re-set their watches anytime they felt like doing it. Thus, railroaders were prohibited from setting their watches. One example of rules prohibiting this can be seen in section 15 of the 1897 Ball Time Inspection Service rules for the Big Four (CCC&StL) and the Peoria & Eastern Railway Co., in which states, in part, "There shall be no attempt on the part of the employe to set and regulate their own watches, ..." Another example is in section 2a of the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario General Train and Interlocking Rules, August 10, 1901, which states, in part, "Employees who are required to use Standard Watches must ... not regulate them, or, unless they stop owing to failure to wind, set them themselves." Prohibitions of the employes setting their watches continued to appear in the rules, as evidenced by Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company Circular 13-2: Watch Inspection and Standard Time Service, January 1, 1938 section 7: "Employes should refrain from any attempt to set or regulate their watches." The regulation of watches was seen to be serious business, which is why most rules prohibited both, usually in the same sentence. Just how serious the regulation of a watch by other than the authorized inspector was, can be seen by a 1899 report from the Illinois Central that stated, "Failure to comply with these requirements will be considered sufficient cause for dismissal." Another indication of just how serious the prohibition of the employes setting their watches was is the effort that was gone through to ensure that watch inspectors would be available to set the watches at the change to and from Daylight Savings Time. This is indicated by an October 1918 notice and at the end of an excerpt from a March 1919 article on the subject.

The railroad brotherhoods, as organizations if not as individuals, fully supported the railroads' point of view of the standard watches being safety devices that should not be set by the railroaders themselves. A 1941 letter from a high BRT official, regarding the withdrawal of a grievance by a yard worker, demonstrates this attitude. Nevertheless, a watch inspector for the Pere Marquette Rail Road in discussing the prohibition of railroaders setting their watches reported: "This rule, however, is frequently broken, as most employees desire good clean records of their watches." (see the right-hand column). It is believed that the rules prohibiting the railroaders from setting their watches to be widely ignored; but it is suspected that the primary reasons for doing so were to have the correct time and thus avoid having the watch inspector downcheck the watch, resulting in a costly service.

The watch inspectors who set the watches may, or may not, have set them to the second. The practice varied. One inspector's narrative of 1940s practice contained the following. "I checked his time to the minute and second against our own master timepiece, setting the seconds hand with the point of my tweezers." (Ted Huguelet, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 334, October 2001, page 633). Otherwise, the +/- 30 seconds per week allowable variation (most standard watches did much better than this) enabled the very occasional setting of only the minute hand (by the inspector) when comparing time at the watch inspector's place. The inspector would regulate any watch whose rate was fast or slow anywhere near the 30 second limit. Watches that couldn't hold the rate had to be withdrawn from service until they were serviced.

Watch Inspection

Periodically, railroaders who came under time service rules had to have their standard watches inspected and certified by the railroad's designated watch inspector. This was typically twice a year but some railroads required it quarterly. The inspector would check to see that the watch was one which was allowed by that particular railroad's rules and that it was in good running order, capable of meeting the timekeeping requirement, typically +/- 30 seconds per week. Finding everything satisfactory, the inspector would certify the watch. This was done using the appropriate forms. In the 1950s, the Western Maryland Railway was using a Two-Part Form, the first part being the railroad's authorization to have the watch inspected (which probably served to permit the inspector to invoice the railroad for the cost of the inspection), and the second part being the certificate which was returned to the railroad as proof of the employe's standard watch being suitable for time service use over the next six months. The employe would be given a Watch Card (certificate - in this instance for the AT&SF) to carry to prove that his/her watch passed inspection. Notice that the watch was rated (timed) to see that it met the AT&SF's requirements in the three positions. Sometimes, a three-part form would have all of these together, to be separated upon passing inspection.

Most railroads' rules stated that, should the watch not pass inspection, it could not be taken to another inspector in the hopes that he would pass it. Rather, if it otherwise met the standard, it would have to be serviced to bring it up to the point where the original inspector would pass it. Since virtually all watch inspectors were watchmakers and jewelry store owners, the watch would usually be left with the inspector for service (at the employe's expense). Upon the completion of the service, the inspector would (naturally) pass the watch. This whole process is described in sections 4-7 of the 1887 Wabash Western Watch Inspection Rules. It should be noted that the employe didn't have to have his/her watch repaired by the company's watch inspector. It could be taken to the employe's watch repairer of choice. However, if this route was chosen, the watch would still have to go back to the original inspector to be accepted – for which the employe would be charged an inspection fee. This fee, along with the additional hassle, plus the fear that the inspector might not accept the repaired watch, encouraged the employes to have the watch repaired by the inspector. This is described in sections 4-7 of the 1887 Wabash Western Watch Inspection Rules and section 13 of the 1897 Big Four Time Inspection Service Circular.

The Watch Inspectors

See the Watch Inspectors Encyclopedia article for information about Watch Inspectors.

Watch Comparison

Webb C. Ball is often mistakenly credited with creating railroad time service and watch inspection as a result of an 1891 train wreck at Kipton, Ohio. As has been demonstrated by the many earlier systems documented thus far, there was steady evolution of time service systems since the beginning of the railroads. The significant advance that Ball created was the regular comparison, by the watch inspector, of employes' watches to a standard clock, and recording the results.

Railroaders under time service rules had to bring their watches to the inspector, who would compare it to a standard clock, twice a month, or perhaps every other week and sometimes monthly (refer to the left column, bottom paragraph in the article). The watch's deviation from standard time would be noted - on some railroads, on the back of the employe's watch card (certificate), on others, on an employe's watch comparison card. Union Pacific's Time Service Circular No. 54, April 18, 1929, spells out their time interval and the utilization of their form. Checking against the previous comparisons, if the watch's rate was stable, but creeping slightly, the inspector might change the regulator position slightly. If the rate was erratic or had a large steady change, the inspector would probably not pass the watch, requiring it to be serviced prior to again entering service.

In-between the visits to the watch inspector, on almost all railroads, the employe had to compare his/her watch against a standard clock upon reporting for work and note the deviation from standard time, sometimes on the back of the watch card, or sometimes on a case paper in the back of the case, as proscribed in Section 9 of the 1887 Wabash Western Rules. On a few roads, employes under time service were required to note the deviation in a daily register. On at least some railroads, engineers, when signing for an engine would have to do this, noting the deviation from standard time on the engine sign-out form. Some railroads required the engineer and conductor, before starting on a trip, to compare their watches with the standard clock and record the fact in a register kept for that purpose. See Section 317 of these 1899 Canada Atlantic Railway Rules. Additionally, most railroads' operating rules required that the engineers and conductors compare their watches with the standard clock, with each other and with the train crew, each seeing the time on the others' watches, to ensure that all had the same (standard) time. Sections 3 and 3a of the 1901 Canadian Pacific Railway General, Train and Interlocking Rules serve as an example.

Watch Cleaning

The rules required that standard watches be cleaned on a periodic basis. Around the turn of the century, this was every 12 or 18 months. By the 1920s, the period was extended out to 24 months. Cleaning was at the expense of the employes. They didn't have to leave their watch with the watch inspector, being able to take their watch to any watchmaker they so desired. However, the employe's replacement watch (to be used while his standard watch was being serviced), even if it was a loaner standard watch that the chosen watchmaker might provide, would have to be inspected by the watch inspector prior to entering service, at the employe's expense In 1887, the fee for this was the considerable amount (at the time) of 25¢, as noted in Section 7 of the 1887 Wabash Western Watch Inspection Rules. Such additional running around and the need to have a loaner watch inspected, encouraged the employe to have his/her watch serviced by the watch inspector.

The railroads kept records of employe watch cleaning, inspection and certification, eventually using systems such as described in a 1945 article in Railway Age on pages 1148, 1149 and 1150. When the due date for the cleaning of a standard watch was coming around, a reminder card would be sent to the employee. Should the railroad not receive documentation that an employe's standard watch was cleaned within a reasonable amount of time of the due date, a notice to that effect would be go out to the employee.

Loaner Watch

Most of the railroads' rules required that, should a watch inspector take in an employe's watch for service or repair, he must provide a loaner watch to the employe. This requirement traces back to one of the earliest documents on time service (see section 8):
7. Conductors will submit their watches to Bond & Sons, 17 Congress street, Boston, for examination, and procure from them a certificate of reliability, which will be handed to the Superintendent.

8. Conductors will report to Messrs Bond any irregularity in the movements of their watches, and they will clean, repair and regulate them, at the expense of the Corporation, furnishing Conductors with reliable watches in the interim.

Boston & Providence Railroad
, Standard Time, August 31, 1853
Reproduced in: Selling The True Time, Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America, Ian R. Bartky, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2000, pg.29
Another good example may be seen in Section 8 of the 1887 Wabash Western Watch Inspection Rules. Furthermore, the rules stated that the loaner watch provided must meet the company's current standard for watches and the employe must be issued a Watch Card (Certificate) for the loaner watch, certifying that it has been inspected and meets the company's standard.


When new time service rules went into effect, it is doubtful that many railroaders had to buy new watches as these rules changed, if the watches could maintain the required rate; +/- 30 seconds per week. Even those rules adopted in the early 1890s, such as Ball's August 15, 1891 Rules for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, permitted lesser watches to remain in service if they had previously been accepted under less stringent rules, a practice commonly referred to as "grandfathering." The usual phrase used to define the grandfathered watches in time service documents was something akin to "The standard adopted by this company for its employes' watches now in service is ..." However, there were exceptions.

Although an number of examples restricting older watches can be cited (i.e., section 35 of the 1946 Union Pacific Railroad Rules), the majority of the railroads' time service rules that are available to examine seem to have clauses permitting the grandfathering of much older, and perhaps lesser watches. This is so much so, that a number of examples of post WWII "Certificate of Watch Inspector" have provisions for describing hunting-case watches such as a 1950 example from the Frisco Lines and a 1956 watch inspection order form and attached certificate from the Western Maryland Railway. Although the requirement for watches to be adjusted to five positions had been in effect on many railroads for over forty years, in 1949 the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (the Burlington Route) section 2 permits watches adjusted to only three positions to remain in service.



See Encyclopedia article entitled "Railroad Time Service Watch Rules"


100 Plus Years of Railroad Watches and Railroad Watch Standards in North America,
Greg Frauenhoff, Sedalia, CO.

Santa Fe: How It Governed Its Timepieces Throughout the System, David M. Nicholson, Dougherty Press, Enid OK, 1985.

Railroad Watch Inspectors, Greg Frauenhoff, Sedalia, CO, 2000.

The Railroad Time Service, The Impact of Railroads on Timekeeping in America, by Sherry Kitts, Edited by Glen Kitts, Published by Sherry Kitts, TN, 2018.

Selling The True Time, Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America, Ian R. Bartky, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2000.


Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.

"Early Railroad Timekeeping," Dana J. Blackwell, NAWCC Bulletin No. 245, December 1986, pp. 459-463.

"The Adoption of Standard Time," Ian R. Bartky, Technology And Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 1989, pp. 27-8.

"Running on Time," Ian R. Bartky, Railroad History No. 159, Autumn, 1988, pp. 23-4.

"Railroad Watch Inspection and Adams' System of Time Records," The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review, July 28, 1897, Page 33 and Page 34.

"What is a Railroad Watch? A Case Study of Watches and Watch Inspection on the Burlington Route During 1889 and 1890," Greg Frauenhoff, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 298, October 1995, pp. 590-4.

"Watch Inspection On The San Diego And Arizona Railway," Vincent S. Ancona, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 278, June 1992, pp. 281 - 293.

"Railroad Watches and Time Service," Larry Treiman, NAWCC Bulletin No. 160, October 1972, pp. 651-675.

"Railroaders' Corner - Railroad Time Service," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 334, October 2001, pp. 630-649.

"Railway Time Service, Part 1," H. Hulatt, Telegraph and Telephone Age, March 16, 1921
"Railway Time Service, Part 2," H. Hulatt, Telegraph and Telephone Age, April 16, 1921
"Railway Time Service, Part 3," H. Hulatt, Telegraph and Telephone Age, May 1, 1921
Although information has come to light since this was written which shows watch regulations and certifications were in place on some railroads in the late 1840s and early 1850s, and although there is some inaccuracy in describing what was available and/or required in the 1890s, this article (especially parts 2 and 3) provides a good description of how time service was applied to certification and comparison of watches.

"Ask The Conductor; He Has The Right Time," S.A. Pope, Southern Pacific Bulletin, Vol. XII, No. 8 (August 1923), Pp. 3-7. Scroll down 3/4 of the way to get to August 1923. Although this article ignores 40+ years of watch inspection development prior to Ball's 1891 rules for the LS&MS, it does contain the SP's 1923 watch requirements.

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