8:23:12 Train Whistles in the Night

With steam-powered locomotives gone, trains no longer whistle in the night. No steam under pressure to blow the whistle. Instead, modern diesel locomotives have compressed-air air horns, a sound in the night possibly as evocative as the train whistle remembered in song.

While horns serve to warn any man or beast on the tracks ahead a train is coming, we tend to associate train horns with something else. Surely we hear that plaintive horn and think--especially at night--of other unknown places in this vast country. That train might be headed to one.

[night train]I've always had pleasant associations with train horns. Partly because my paternal grandfather was a locomotive engineer, as were his father and several uncles too. Those two generations take in a lot of railroad history, including the shift from steam to diesel locomotives.

I also associate preemptive urgency with train horns. Trains carry America's wealth, whether coal, livestock, grain, or manufactured goods. Everything moves by freight trains. Timely delivery matters and freight stops for nothing. Hence crossing barriers for automotive and truck traffic. Or why even Amtrak passenger trains, shunted to a side spur, make way for a Time-Is-Money freight train.

It goes without saying freight trains run all hours of the day. For me, it is those night passages, the short blasts from the air horns, the inevitably countless clickety-clacks that follow with the aching squeal of rolling steel wheels I find most evocative. Especially, when heard from one's bedroom late at night through an open window, when the cool night air has to travel but a few miles to carry the sounds of another freight train headed out under the cover of darkness.

Perhaps on one occasion or another, these freight train horn blasts were annoying, keeping me awake. But I soon remembered America's work was being done, even as I slept. So the muted train horn--I'm hearing one as I type this--reassures us much is working well in our land. (If it weren't, and I think back to the haunting absence of noisy jets at airports right after 9/11, then we'd have true problems.)

At times, train horns can be like a nighttime lullaby. When I lived in California, I had similar feelings toward the sound of another nocturnal warning: Fog would sweep into the bay, and fog horns began their ceaseless warning to ships at sea. But not everyone lives by the Pacific, and so those of us, inland, must take similar comfort from freight trains and their horns in the night.

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The Cat at Light's End

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