By Calvin Palmer
One of the most evocative sounds of the American cityscape is that of a diesel locomotive sounding its horn as it approaches a railroad crossing.
Since moving to the United States in 2000, I have lived in close proximity to the railroad both in Texas and now in Florida. Some people complain about the disruptive nature of the sound at night but I love it.
A train sounding out its presence in the dead of night makes me think of those film noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s. It conjures up images of Humphrey Bogart in a trench-coat or Robert Mitchum sporting a wide brimmed trilby and with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. It evokes Packard, De Soto and Hudson cars with their grinning chrome radiator grilles.
The sound of a locomotive’s horn also puts me in mind of a raft of songs, ranging from country to blues — covered later by rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s — Me and Bobby McGee; Mama Tried, with its opening line of “First thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing”; Jimi Hendrix’s Hear My Train Comin’; and not forgetting the Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones.
Writing this piece just after midnight, the stillness of the night has been pierced several times by the sound of a train.
Sometimes, the sound is just one long haunting note. At other times, those engineers with a musical background add a few variations, as if to emulate the horn section of a rhythm and blues band or even a wah-wah effect. And it is easy to see that the wailing sound of a harmonica in many a blues standard has its origins in the sound of a train.
In America, freight trains are huge affairs usually pulled by two locomotives, sometimes four, and stretching more than a mile in length. Back in my train-spotting days, as a 10-year-old, trains in Britain pulled by two locomotives, and I am talking about the days of steam, were known as “double-headers”. They were a rare sight but are commonplace in America, where everything is done on a bigger scale than anywhere else.
With the length of American freight trains, it is small wonder that it takes two locomotives to pull them and why the wait at a railroad crossing can take four to five minutes while a train rumbles past.
But to me that is all part and parcel of life in America. The railroad is what made the country great and why it assumes such a major theme in American popular culture.
And right on cue, as I round off this piece, the bell clangs at the railroad crossing and a locomotive’s horn blasts out a series of doleful notes as another train trundles through the Florida night.