Author: Campbell, Bruce

That Lonesome Sigh of a Train Goin’ By

There are an awful lot of songs in Bluegrass and country music that refer to the lonesome sound of a train whistle in the night. If you’ve ever heard that sound, you know exactly what the songs are referring to. That sound touches me in the deepest part of my memory.

I’m a city boy, but I grew up around trains. My grandfather worked for the Southern Pacific railroad for 50 years, and he and my grandmother lived on SP land, in Millbrae. The little house was clearly built by the same crew that built the Millbrae depot – both building shared the same slat siding, and the same ochre color. On one side of my grandparent’s house, about 12 feet from the house was a set of commuter train tracks, and on the other side, just as close, a switching yard. By the time I was 6, I had ridden in a caboose and driven a locomotive.

When a train went by the house (which was often – it was a busy line), the lights flickered, the lamps swayed, the plates rattled in the kitchen and pictures on the wall shook. These trains went by several times an hour, 24 hours a day. I learned to sleep through it, and in fact, became soothed by the rumble, the flashing lights through dark house, and the sound of train whistle and the bells at the nearby crossing gates.

Now I live less than a half mile from train tracks, and when I bought the house, I had to sign a disclaimer that I wouldn’t complain about the train noises. Complain? They could have charged me extra for it! All through the night, I can hear the train whistles echoing through the hills as trains make their way from Crockett, through Martinez, and head over the straits or Eastward towards the hills of Pittsburg. The Doppler Effect gives the train whistles their spooky sound, as the pitch is raised as the sound approaches and then goes low as the trains pass through.

I was going to focus this column on the different whistles trains have. They don’t all sound alike, and I wondered if certain railroads specified what whistles to use, or if maybe they were the choice of the engineers. Different engineers certainly have different whistle-blowing styles. But as I began to research this, I found that most news about train whistles stems from communities around the country trying to eliminate them! I think this is absurd!

Not only do train whistles save lives, but they evoke instant memories of a more rural past, a bygone Norman Rockwell America, where everybody knew their neighbors and nobody locked their doors at night. OK, those days are probably gone forever, but it’s important to remember the ideal. And if you’re one of those folks who are lobbying to ban train whistles, think of this: If you’re annoyed by train whistles, it’s very unlikely that the trains moved in after you did. More likely, you bought a home near the railroad line, and then decided you hate the sound. Who was there first? I see a lot homes under construction, but very few new tracks being laid down!

Yes, train whistles are loud – they are meant to be, to warn everybody at grade crossings. But they’re also a very brief song, and if one wakes you up in the night, embrace the sound, feel the shiver as you absorb that lonesome call, then go back to sleep. I feel sorry for anyone who can’t learn to love a train whistle.
Posted:  6/21/2005

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email