The Lonesome Whistle
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 <http://www.kingmandailyminer.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=797&ArticleID=39367>
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 <http://www.nprinternedition.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124648093>