Why Do Locomotives Have Bells?

If you have ever been on or around a locomotive, you’re probably very familiar with the sound of a ringing train bell. These bells are an extremely common feature on American locomotives, no matter what power source they use. But you may be wondering: what exactly are these bells for?

Locomotive bells are mainly used to warn any pedestrians or drivers near railroad crossings that a train is approaching. They’re also often used while a train is picking up passengers at a station to alert members of the locomotive’s crew that the train will begin departing soon.

 Below, we will discuss more information on these bells and their purposes. Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about locomotive bells!

locomotive bell
Todd and Jack Humphrey

Why Do Locomotives Have Bells?

Anyone familiar with locomotives knows all about the sound of a bell. This light ringing is one of the most obvious signs that a train is nearby.

The primary reason locomotives have bells is to warn people that a train is moving, or that it will be moving or approaching a crossing or station soon. They’re also used while the locomotive is stopped at a train station, letting both passengers and crew members know that the train is about to begin moving. This lets people know that it’s time to board the train, sit down, or close the doors as soon as possible to prepare for the departing process.

Bells have been used primarily on North American locomotives since the 1840s. These days, most modern electric and diesel trains use automated bells, rather than manual bells that the conductor actually has to reach up and ring. They are an important safety feature, and most roads will require the conductor to ring the bell when the train approaches any of the following areas:


  • Train stations
  • Level crossings
  • Grade crossings
  • Railroad crossings
  • Railroad equipment
  • Other standing trains

In short, these bells are necessary for keeping those in and around the train safe. They catch people’s attention to let them know that the train is either currently moving or will begin to move soon.

locomotive weight
Todd and Jack Humphrey

Where Are Locomotive Bells Located?

The location of a locomotive’s bell will depend on the type of train you’re looking at. On steam locomotives, the bells may be located in either the front or middle of the train.

On diesel-powered trains, you will find the bell either below the frame or near the locomotive’s fuel tank. And, on electric locomotives, the bells are usually either near or on the front of the train’s cab.

What Are the Parts of a Locomotive Bell?

A traditional locomotive bell is composed of five separate parts. These include:


  • The bell
  • The yoke
  • The cradle
  • The clapper
  • The pull-arm

The bell itself is one solid piece of metal, and the cradle is the framework that attaches the bell to the train through the yoke, the component that allows the bell to swing. The clapper is the piece hanging inside that hits the bell, letting it ring, and the pull-arm is where the rope attaches so the conductor can reach up and ring the bell.

What’s the Difference Between a Bell and a Horn?

Bells and horns are both very well-known parts of all types of locomotives. If you have ever worked on a railroad or ridden on a train before, you probably know that bells and horns make very different sounds. Both are vital safety features of locomotive engines, and each is designed to give crew members, pedestrians, and drivers different types of train-related warnings.

On most modern locomotives, the sounding of the horn automatically triggers the bell to ring. Once the horn is turned off, the conductor will need to stop the bell from ringing manually. Now that we have covered the basics, let’s discuss some differences between these two important features.

Locomotive Bell

As we discussed in the above sections, the locomotive’s bell alerts people when the train is nearby, moving, or about to depart from a passenger station. It makes a much quieter, lighter sound compared to the horn because it rings more frequently, usually once every few seconds. This is a quiet reminder that a locomotive is nearby, gently letting anyone near the tracks know that they will need to stay alert until after it passes.

Locomotive Horn

The locomotive’s horn will be significantly louder than the bell. While the bell is meant to warn anyone nearby of a moving train, the horn is designed to be heard by anyone up to half a mile away from the train.

This is because it is typically sounded while the train is moving at high speeds, and it needs to be loud enough for people in vehicles to hear over all the other ambient noise on the road as they approach the train tracks. Essentially, the train’s horn is meant to warn people that they need to get out of the way as soon as possible to avoid disaster.

train horn

Most roads will require the horn to blow any time a train passes any type of crossing. These include:


  • Level crossings
  • Grade crossings
  • Railroad crossings

It’s very loud since it’s used for widespread alerts, and usually has a much deeper tone than the bell. Because of this, the bell is generally used at train stations instead of the horn, because the loud sound can easily startle passengers waiting for their train to arrive. But, any time you hear the horn, it’s likely that you’ll hear the bell ring simultaneously or shortly after.

Final Thoughts

The main reason most types of American locomotives have bells is to alert people to a moving train. It will also usually ring to let crew members and passengers know that the train will depart from a station soon. While the bell will certainly not be quiet, it’s a much lighter and softer sound than the horn, which is meant to be heard from up to half a mile away. Bells are a feature on all types of locomotives, whether they’re powered by steam, diesel, and electricity.


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