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The Lonesome Whistle

July 12, 2011

Walking home late at night from studio, a piece of the American landscape floats through the chill air and lands on the ear: the wail of a passing train, whistling for the road crossings along the southern edge of Manhattan. But in an increasingly larger number of cities, trains rumble through in silence, passing through sleeping neighborhoods with no sound louder than the occasional screech of a rusty wheel. Once the whistle of the steam train was a soothing call that drifted across the countryside, but as diesel locomotives and their air horns became common and horns were increased in intensity for safety reasons, the once adoring public has turned into an angry, sleepless mob clamoring for quiet zones and whistle bans.

Historically the whistle of a steam locomotive was not only a warning device but the engineer’s communication tool. Engineers would whistle for orders from the station, whistle for brakes to be applied, and developed their own unique whistles to let their wives know to get dinner ready. As far as each engineer having an individual whistle, perhaps no engineer is more famous than Casey Jones, one of the first engineers to build his own whistle for his engine (Botkin, 340). The whistle quickly became a piece of Americana. However, even in 1919, the people of Macon, Georgia would complain to the city’s leaders about losing sleep to locomotive whistles, and many cities banned the use of whistle signals within railroad yards (Botkin 339-340). As the steam whistle has given way to increasingly louder diesel horns, blaring at a federally-mandated minimum of 96 decibels (FRA, 2), noise pollution in neighborhoods along the tracks in urban areas with many road crossings has become a major problem.

Complaints about locomotive whistling at crossings usually center around quality of life issues for those living near the tracks. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control, the attributes of an annoying noise are “1) the frequency of the noise, high or low pitched, 2) its intensity level, 3) its modulation characteristics, 4) time and place of the occurrence of the noise, 5) duration of the noise, and 6) the individual background of the hearer (EPA, 12).” The time and place of the noise are what make modern train horns at night such an annoyance. Also in recent years the volume of train horns has increased, to a range where at the range of 90-110 decibels discomfort for speech begins (EPA, 12). Therefore, even during daytime, citizens living near busy mainlines are finding horns an annoyance as their conversations are interrupted and ears become sore, leading to a desire to silence the trains.

The history of whistle bans begins during the late 1970’s when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a rule allowing communities to make laws banning the sounding of whistles during certain hours. Hundreds of cities and towns moved to do so, culminating in 1984 with the state of Florida issuing a statewide whistle ban. Then, during the early 1990’s, “the FRA observed a significant increase in train-vehicle collisions at certain gated grade crossings in Florida” leading to Congress mandating the sounding of horns at all public highway grade crossings (FRA, 1). The mandate also included the possibility of establishing “quiet zones” as long as increased crossing safety requirements were met. The rules for quiet zones were finally approved in 2005 (Morales). Over 180 towns have now enacted whistle bans.

Flagstaff, Arizona, is one of the cities with a long railroad history to recently enact a whistle ban. The city spent $885,000 to improve safety at the five railroad crossings through its downtown to earn approval of its proposed whistle ban (Chilton). Trackside horns, designed to emulate the train horn but generate less noise, were installed at the crossings. A significant reduction in noise was observed, leading nearby Kingman, Arizona, on the same major rail line, to begin considering a similar quiet zone for its three downtown crossings. The city would use a previously approved 2% bed tax increase earmarked for capital improvements to fund the required crossing safety improvements. With over $200,000 a year generated by the tax, the city estimates it would have enough money in the next two to three years.

As more and more cities agree on the economic importance of silencing train whistles, a piece of the American landscape fades from our shared experience. Flagstaff’s board of tourism recently released a YouTube video proclaiming that you still get “the full railroad experience” in Flagstaff, attempting to reduce the impact on the railfan market. While railfans lament, American society’s tolerances have changed, meaning in many areas the time of the locomotive loudly proclaiming the train’s approach is ending. The sound of the train’s horn punctuating the still night air over sleeping Manhattan may be on limited time. It too may soon disappear, like so many other pieces of railroad history, into the past forever.


Botkin, B. A. A Treasury of Railroad Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954.

Chilton, James. “Vice mayor says ‘quiet zones’ working in Flagstaff.” Kingman Daily Miner 5 August 2010. 5 October 2010 <;

Environmental Protection Agency. About Sound. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Noise Abatement and Control, 1976.

Federal Railroad Administration. Train Horn Rule Fact Sheet. Washington, D. C.: FRA Public Affairs, 2006.

Morales, Laurel. “By Law, Trains Slipping Silently Through Towns.” NPR 13 March 2010. 5 October 2010 <;


Daily Watercolor #3

July 10, 2011

The second watercolor sketch in my burst of painting to make up for two days off, is a simple red umbrella, done without any reference images to speak of. Completion time: 15 minutes.

Daily Watercolor #2

July 10, 2011

Not being deterred by being too busy on Friday and Saturday, I have made up for those lost days with three watercolors today. The first is of the construction shack that is behind my parents house, and has been there since development in the neighborhood stopped three years ago. Completion time: 30 minutes.

Daily Watercolor #1

July 7, 2011

With the end of my schooling life, it has been hard to maintain the same level of energy I had when working on projects in studio. With the economy and a job search stretching off farther into the future than anyone would prefer, I have found it hard to not fall into a creative stupor.

The preventive cure, is to do what Stephen Holl does, what one of my second year professors told me I should do, what I tried to do while I was in Italy: watercolor every day. Not only will I keep my artistic skills honed, I will also keep my creative juices flowing in ways that my streetcar project and job searching can’t. I won’t post every daily watercolor sketch here, but I will make it a regular feature. In addition to daily watercolor sketches, I will also do a larger painting or two every weekend so that I can begin expanding my hand-rendering portfolio with more recent work.

For the first Daily Watercolor, we have Steampunk Sam, the character from my Steampunk Revolution poster, featured in the previous post. Completion time: 30 minutes.

Tome of the Rural Trolley

July 7, 2011

The Interurban Era
by William D. Middleton
Kalmbach Publishing, 1961

Every once in a while, you go into a used bookstore and a book leaps off the shelf at you.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Whatever the case, The Interurban Era by William D. Middleton caught my eye with its bold font on the spine, and I knew it would be a good railroad book from a bygone era by the beautiful 1950s-style cover illustration. Inside, the book is divided into several introductory chapters about interurbans and their technological development, followed by the bulk of the book, providing a complete survey of interurban lines around the country, divided by region. This is where the book really shines, with photographs hard to find anywhere else. Although due to the book’s age they are all black and white, the photos give a thorough impression of the vast rural streetcar network that was lost to the age of the automobile.

This book is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to model interurbans, or for anyone wishing to see how the country once moved by rail and how we can once again achieve that goal. There are photos of interurban cars in every environment, from stations to bridges to rolling countryside to crowded city streets. Every photo is accompanied by ample descriptive text, and short descriptions and histories of the interurban lines featured in the photos are scattered throughout the regional chapters. The rear of the book contains a listing of all interurban lines, and an appendix of interurban diagrams and equipment explanations, helpful for modelers and those uninitiated into the language of trolleys.

In short, the book is 432 pages of railroad photographic history goodness.

When browsing through the scenes of hustle and bustle in small town America, and people enjoying a day out flying through the countryside, one can become lonesome for what once was, especially if born to late to experience the greatest era of rail transport. Middleton himself sums up the nostalgia best, only two decades after the close of the interurban era, when the country was first plunging headlong into the experiment of automobile-driven growth:

“To many adult Americans, now as much slave as they are master of their automobiles, the interurban railways linger among pleasant memories of an unhurried, less sophisticated time in the recent past.”

Things to Come

June 30, 2011

Steampunk Sam wants YOU!

I’ve recently become enamored with the possibilities of low technology in the face of peak oil and the unsettled future of climate destabilization. My work with “The Future of the Past” in streetcar technology for my masters thesis is just one example of how low-tech has begun to influence by design thinking. Kris De Decker’s Low-tech Magazine has been a source of infinite inspiration, from the possibilities of actual windMILLS and wind-powered factories to the terrifying energy and pollution footprint of digital technology. There are thousands of low-tech solutions to engineering and design problems which have small or no energy inputs that have been abandoned for no good reason other than they aren’t “the modern thing to do.” One of my favorite articles is this one about hand powered tools, of which I already own a few.

This research into low-tech has intersected with my love of steam locomotives and interest in developments in modern steam technology, like those of L. D. Porta and others. My post on solar steam was the beginning of my research into this topic, and combined with modern steam has motivated me to develop a plan for how these technologies could be implemented close to home.

The Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway, a tourist line in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is home to two steam locomotives that are currently non-operational due to the new Federal Railway Administration (FRA) boiler regulations that went into effect in 2000. Locomotive 201, originally built for the construction of the Panama Canal, was the second steam locomotive I ever encountered, on a trip with my grandparents when I was four or five. Without the star performers, the railway has fallen on hard times and is currently for sale by the family that built it originally in 1985. The railway, in the setting of Victorian-era Eureka Springs, provides the perfect place for the development of a low-tech educational center, including the modern application of things like blacksmithing, woodworking, windmills, bicycles, and, of course, steam locomotives. A variety of biofuels could be tested for steam locomotive use, as well as scientific testing of modern improvements to steam locomotive engineering. The station itself could be turned into a net-zero energy building through the use of low-tech solutions. The embodied energy of the entire operation, as well as the energy it uses, would be tracked in a visible accounting system, with the goal being a near-net-zero railroad. It would be the first completely “green” tourist railroad in North America, and use early 20th century steam locomotives to do it! The idea might all just be dreaming, but it, along with my Springfield Streetcar project, allows me to keep my planning and design skills sharp while I look for work.

Apart from developing a plan for the low-tech center, I will post other applications of low-technology or places where I see low-tech could be easily implemented as the months go on. There will also be some analysis on the emergence of Steampunk culture in the world of art, and how the enthusiasm there could be harnessed for the purposes of sustainability. Stay tuned as I switch into high gear on spreading the word about low-tech, and also continue posting about my model railroad, art, and architecture endeavors. Join the revolution and save the world!

Transport 2050

June 28, 2011

Often a city will find a major part of its national image being a result of its transportation. America is still largely a country defined by the distances it spans, and the transportation systems on which it was built, leading to transportation being one of our most image-able assets. “Transportation remains one of the most important external forces that influence the shape of cities,” Witold Rybczynski says in the final chapter of Makeshift Metropolis.  When visitors come to Manhattan, Kansas, one of their first experiences is and will be with the region and the city’s transportation network.

The cover to the book of my masters thesis project.

Transportation is both the skeletal structure and the circulatory system of a city. It is the foundation upon which all development happens. The history of transportation and its effect on the city is evident in Manhattan’s location. Settled by pioneers traveling by riverboat, the bend in the Kansas River is the farthest they could come, their boat running aground.  Years later, the river valley provided the easiest route over the rolling Flint Hills for the Kansas Pacific and its diminutive little locomotives on their way to Denver.  Prosperity came as the town became home to a land grant school and a transcontinental transportation link. Eventually, the automobile allowed the city to expand beyond its flat location in the valley, spreading across the hills to the northwest.

Currently, Manhattan’s transportation options are centered on the tyranny of the automobile; its development options are based on the suburban result. But Manhattan used to have a choice. Like many small Midwestern towns, it had a streetcar system that provided clean, affordable, easily accessible transportation.

Today, many may see Manhattan as too small to support a successful streetcar system, but it is possible. Manhattan can once again have a choice, a choice for the better. Streetcars will bring investment and a powerful image for the city to use to market itself regionally. Transportation can once again be the unifying theme of Manhattan.

Transport 2050 is a project envisioning a rail-based transportation system for the city of Manhattan, linking city planning considerations to the transportation choices available to the citizens. The result is a greener, denser, more sustainable and resilient community.

–Excerpt from the introduction

My entire masters thesis project, titled Transport 2050, can be viewed in PDF form here: Transport 2050