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Sounds of a Train

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Many people write about the history of trains and how it brings back such heartwarming memories. For many of those people, it is the whistle, along with the clack, clack of the wheels that evokes those memories. Since the sounds are inseparable from the train itself, it is the whole package about which people love to talk and write.

Each train locomotive has some sort of signaling device that is used for a variety of reasons and brings on those memories and the warm, fuzzy feelings. The locomotive uses its whistle to warn people of its approach or to communicate with other rail workers.

The history of train whistles originated about 1832, when a stationmaster at the Leicester and Swannington Railway opening suggested that the trains should have an audible signaling device. The Leicester and Swannington Railway (L&S) was one of England’s first railways, being opened on July 17, 1832 to bring coal from pits in west Leicestershire to Leicester. A local musical instrument builder was commissioned to provide a steam-powered whistle.

The older steam whistles were almost always actuated with a pull cord or lever that permitted the engineer to perform the action so that some form of “expression” could be put into the sound and identify a particular engineer over the course of time. Many locomotive operators would have their own style of blowing the whistle, and it was often apparent who was operating the locomotive simply by the sound. Modern locomotives, however, often make use of a pushbutton switch, which takes away the personal control over the way the whistle is sounded.

Since train whistles were extremely inexpensive to institute compared to other more effective warning devices, the use of loud and distinct train whistles had become the preferred safety fallback for railroad operators.

Some people even like the sound of the whistle because it calls to mind a nostalgic era, as with the riverboats and their steam whistles and calliopes. Other people write their negative experiences and take great exception to the use of the whistle. The need to blare a train’s whistle loudly to be heard by the driver of a vehicle approaching a grade crossing has become a major disadvantage to the use of train whistles as a safety device and has caused much controversy among those living within earshot of the train’s whistle.

It has been documented that a train’s whistle, when operating on compressed air, driving an exponential horn, has been measured at a higher decibel levels within the homes of nearby residents than within the cab of a vehicle sitting at the grade crossing.

It is not uncommon for the sound of a train’s whistle to propagate for miles; yet operators of vehicles still have a difficult time hearing the warning signal due to the vehicle’s soundproofing and ambient noise within the cab (such as engine, road, radio, and conversation noises).

To write about train whistles is to learn that they are also used to communicate to other railroad workers on a train or to railroad workers in the yard. Different combinations of long and short whistles each have their own meaning. They are used to pass instructions, as a safety signal, and to warn of impending movements of a train. Despite the advent of modern radio communication, many of these whistle signals are still used today.

To the extent that the sound of a steam train whistle is unique, and somewhat symbolic of long distance travel, it has come to contextualize itself as mournful and melancholy. Whether or not you enjoy the sound of an approaching train, one aspect everyone agrees on is that it certainly is distinctive.


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