2011-07-07

Hear That Whistle Blow

One of the more interesting groups of railfans are the ones that are into locomotive whistles and horns, the signaling devices used by engineers to communicate and warn the world outside his cab of what he's doing. An entire industry has grown around a collection of railfans who collect and, at times, sound off their affection for trains.

Historically, whistles on steam locomotives solved the very real problem of warning people that a train was approaching a grade crossing. The ridiculously verbose "Look out for the locomotive" signs apparently just weren't doing the trick, especially for non-literate cows, whose tendency to stray onto the tracks coined the name for the pilot as "cow-catcher." Since that time, whistles (and horns) have come to be seen (heard?) as the herald of the train, and, as such, have become woven into the history and cultural hallmarks of railroads, especially songs like I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow.



Some of you may remember the picture I posted a year ago regarding ear protection, "You Forgot Your What?!" The picture was taken at Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad's annual Railfest, where, sans ear plugs, a gentleman gave his hearing to give the fans a treat: a concert of sorts played on steam whistles taken from locomotives whose fires have long since gone cold. I suppose that compressed air varies from steam only in it's relative pressure and humidity, and often it would be the only practical way of sounding the whistles that are silent for so long.

Today, diesel locomotive horns also use compressed air. Instead of sharing steam that was used to propel the steamers, air horns share air that is compressed to charge and control the brakes along the entire train. Instead of near the steam dome, air horns are mounted anywhere from up front, over the cab to back by the duct fans for the radiators. Not quite as romantic as the whistle, diesel locomotive horns have nonetheless gathered a following, particularly from the younger generations of railfans. Marketing calls them Air Chimes, but most know better.

How To Spot A Horn Fan
If you're in a forum and someone compliments a trackside video for having a great Nathan K5LA, they're not complimenting a Nathan's hot dog. They're talking about this:




You might remember the sound of that horn from Amtrak's fleet of F40PHs. Some have gone so far as to bring the love much closer to home:



Isn't this nuts? You can spend hours, and hours, and hours streaming nothing but videos of these folks, often investing thousands of dollars and going out into the country (if they're smart) to literally toot their own horn.

The Thorn of the Rose
What is truly nuts is that this has led to a problem with horns being stolen right off the locomotive, even while it's in service. As a result, buyers on eBay have to be more careful than the average buyer that they are getting horns legally acquired through scrap dealers or other means.

It brings to mind the whole disreputable class of railfan who helps themselves to parts like bells, headlamps, number plates, and nearly anything that can be bolted to a locomotive. They're the reason Cumbres & Toltec Scenic (ex-Denver & Rio Grande Western) K-37 locomotives 494 and 495, long out of service, sit in such a sad and stripped condition. One only hopes the missing parts are squirreled away in some locker, awaiting a return to service. Such thievery illustrates a true loss of perspective, a thorn in a bed of roses. 

Hear That Lonesome Whistle
How many kids grew up with one of those four-chambered train whistles? How many more grew up hearing the real thing as they slept on summer nights? Rocking back and forth in an Amtrak sleeper, it was the engineers horn that sounded for every crossing with two longs, a short and a long, a serenade in our honor and a lullaby all in one.

The whistle will always be king among what sounds people associate with the rails. In some ways, the whistle is the train. It was among the three best sounds in the world, according to George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. It is a beautiful sound, announcing arrivals and departures. It's a terrible sound,  blown for emergencies and imminent collisions. It's a sound that is so deeply engrained in the American memory, it persists nearly 60 years after its widespread use has faded. Horns have inherited this legacy, but the whistle will always call more fans to the rails.