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Graffiti artists love to spread their works far and wide by
painting them on freight trains. This is a sort of underground
mass communications medium, but with some research and
planning railroads could also be used to send specific, coded
messages to specific destinations, disguised as ordinary
There's an order to the cars in freight trains that is dictated
by patterns in the flow of goods and materials from city to
city. One could learn what these patterns are, and then,
given a certain type of car in a certain yard in a certain city,
make a fairly accurate prediction about where it's going and
when it will get there. Then by writing the same message on
a number of cars of similar type in the same yard, one could
be reasonably sure that at least one of them would reach the
A code could be developed that resembled ordinary graffiti to
anyone other than the clued-in reader. This would not have
to entail complex designs if factors such as the type of car
used and the location of the symbols on the car were used as
information. The presence of other graffiti would make the
message hard to spot, if one didn't know exactly what to look
Since graffiti is illegal, this system would be most useful to
revolutionaries and others who would be willing to break the
law for secrecy. In fact, it's possible someone is already doing
this, although I haven't yet found any references to it. If
anyone reading this happens to be involved in a treasonous
plot and is communicating by freight car, please don't come
after me: I thought of this all by myself and I never meant to
expose your scheme! Really!
Hobo Signs & Symbols
Baked, kinda. This is a series of symbols used by illiterate hobos to pass messages to each other. Note that the usage isn't strictly for trains, but they were included. [phoenix, Oct 04 2004]
More hobo signs
[phoenix, Oct 04 2004]
||Notwithstanding comments which will undoubtedly be be made about Underground Railways and their signing systems in other times and nations, it seems to me that even a creaky behemoth like our rail freight delivery system must have figured out a way to queue rail cars and mark them for drop off at appointed points along a route. Forty years ago, chalk was a good enough marking system; Today, it's probably all bar codes or self-adhesive conductor strips.
But, what is most fascinating about your idea, is the concept that people might hang around the freight yards at rail terminals waiting night after night for outdated information to roll in on the sides of freight cars.
Steel Dawn now?
||Freight car steganography.
||As bin Laden himself pointed out when he was being accused of hiding messages in his video broadcasts, why bother with all the freaky steganography when you can just send e-mail or whatever? There are much easier ways of sending a message (anonymous and encrypted if you like) with much less personal risk.
||//. In fact, it's possible someone is already doing this, although I haven't yet found any references to it.//
Just because you're paranoid, don't mean you're not getting fishboned.
||perhaps this is what trainspotters are really doing. I have never believed they collect train numbers for goodness sake.
||Thanks for the links, thcgenius and phoenix. I don't think
that either "warchalking" or hobo signs are really the
same idea as mine, though, because they give information
about the area they're found in or the thing they're
written on, whereas I'm thinking of using the trains as a
way of carrying non-train-related messages from one
person to another across long distances.
||egnor is right, of course, that this is not likely to be the
best option in most cases. This is particularly true in
countries such as the United States, where instant,
unmonitored communication is readily available and
||[po] My dad actually does collect train numbers. He writes them down in a little book, along with what type of engine they're on, and what train line and such. Sometimes he even gets little stencils, and puts the numbers on appropriate model trains, which he takes down to San Diego, where there's a model railroad museum that lets him run the trains on weekends.
||Of course, that doesn't mean this is a normal behavior for rational humans... but I suppose it's no stranger than spending hours online posting weird invention ideas.