Color has long played an important role in railway transportation. Consider the former prevalence of dark green heavyweight passenger cars, red cabooses, and rusty brown boxcars. Don’t forget the official corporate colors of different railway companies — Canadian Pacific’s deep burgundy, or Union Pacific’s bright yellow, or Missouri Pacific’s dark blue. These colors, though, are not stable; corporate images change, company identities fade away through merger. Sometimes new colors emerge, and come to define an entire era. Such is the case with safety orange. Few other colors so clearly define contemporary railroading.
“Safety orange,” for those who do not know it already by sight, is a color that appears to have its own luminosity, even in broad daylight. It is also known as “blaze orange,” and worn as a safety precaution by hunters, fishermen, and other outdoors enthusiasts. The true fluorescent version of the color is sometimes referred to as Day-glo orange, a trademarked term that, like Kleenex, now seems universal.
Railroads have used orange for more than a century, of course. Interurban electric railways often painted their equipment bright orange, so that the color came to be known, for a while, as “traction orange.” The Southern Pacific, meanwhile, began painting orange end stripes on its diesel switchers as far back as 1947, in a scheme colloquially known as “tiger stripe.” In both cases, the brightness of the color was meant to increase the visibility of rail equipment as a safety measure.
Contemporary use of safety orange, however, traces back to the later introduction of fluorescent paints by brothers Joseph and Robert Switzer in the 1930s. Paints that “fluoresce,” in the simplest terms, seem to amplify the light that strikes them, thus appearing to glow. World War II provided opportunities to demonstrate the pragmatic value of the Switzer’s fluorescing paints. Applications included extending night operations on aircraft carriers through luminescing deck markings to use in clothing as way to distinguish allied forces from the enemy.
Fast forward to the 1960s, when several Class I railroads began to modernize. During this time, computerization began to be adopted, and handwritten switch lists on heavy cardstock began to be replaced by computer-generated lists printed on flimsy paper. Liable to water and dirt damage, some companies began to issue glorified page protectors, often bearing railroad markings. Somewhere along the way, someone got a bright idea — include a card the same size as the protector, printed in bright, fluorescent orange. With this addition, the switch list holder also became a daytime signal device, much as a lantern was at night. Eventually, these orange inserts became integrated with the holder itself by using dyed plastic for one side. Given their eye-popping visual qualities, these holders were sometimes called “flashcards.”
After the introduction of flashcards, safety orange (in both plain and fluorescing forms) spread throughout the industry. The bodies of plastic switch lanterns was a natural next step. Then came radio belts, gloves, and even hats. Starting in the U.K. in the 1960s, then spreading to North America, safety orange clothing has become commonplace, from vests worn over other clothes to whole jumpsuits made of orange nylon. Where once the blue and white of hickory stripe or the solid blue of denim ruled, the color of work is now orange. More recently, workwear is transitioning to green or yellow, further brightening the “high-viz” spectrum. While cars and locomotives may sport any number of colors, to my mind it is safety orange that represents the craft of today’s railroaders.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.