Early on in Swedish railway history, a manual system was used. In good time before a train was going to pass the crossing, the gatekeeper closed the gates for road traffic, clearing the way for the passing train. Once the train had passed, the gates were opened and rail traffic was blocked.

The archives contain information in penalty records where track tenders were reprimanded or even fined because the gates blocked the railway when a train needed to pass.

Keeping track of the train timetable

It was part of the gatekeeper’s job to keep track of the times when trains were due to pass. It was also important to check that the last wagon of the train displayed an end signal. If this were missing, it could mean that a wagon is missing from the train for some reason. It was important for both track tenders and gatekeepers to keep a watchful eye on the last wagon of the train for an “extra train is coming” signal so they did not reopen the gates too early.

The gatekeeper would close the gate ten minutes before the train was to pass the crossing. During this period of time, no large number of creatures could be allowed to pass the crossing at the same time; and no long or heavier loads were permitted to cross.
In the early 20th century, level-crossing barriers were introduced that only blocked the road crossing.

Women and children could act as gatekeepers

If the road crossing was near a track tender’s cabin, tending the gates was part of the track tender’s duties. If the track tender was married, his wife could handle the gatekeeper duties. If he was unmarried, he could hire a person to do this for the extra pay he received for tending the gates. There are isolated examples of 10–12-year-olds and older youths acting as gatekeepers, often on smaller private railways.

Being a gatekeeper was not without its risks. There are several examples of gatekeepers being hit by passing trains. In some cases, they were late in opening the gates and were not able to get out of the path of the train in time. In others, they stood too close to the track and fell into the passing train.

Woman standing on her way in front of a railway gate with a shawl around her shoulders in a winter landscape. Wooden house in the background.

Gatekeeper in Söderala, 1922.