Train Whistles at Night

(This Blog post originally appeared on March 20, 2013)

I live about 75 feet from one of America’s most important railroad lines – the Chicago-to-San Francisco route. There’s a train rolling by every 20-25 minutes.

Trains are nothing new to me as my parents’ house is about two blocks from this same track, my grandparents’ house is right along the tracks, and I have lived no farther than one mile from these tracks. Having been at my house for five months, the trains are nothing more than ambient background noise anymore, even at night. They don’t bother me when I try to sleep.

By rule, the only train whistles we hear in Sterling and Rock Falls are when they cross Stouffer Road, Avenue B, Avenue K, the crossing at NWSW’s western-most mill near Casey’s, and a couple of crossings in Galt. Others come as needed (emergencies, people on the tracks, etc.). Before a train crosses my house, I know that two blows means its coming from the east and three blows mean its coming from the west.

Trains have many whistles, but my favorite-sounding one is a low-pitched one very late at night. It doesn’t really mean anything, but rather is tuned as such with the doppler effect – the pitch is higher when it gets close to us, and thus gets lower as it goes away from us.

Sound travels in waves. However, there are many things that block these waves. This makes the whistles sound different. Because I live along the river, there is a long and open path with no sound wave interruption. That is, from the eastern tip of Lawrence Brothers to Stouffer Road. This creates two different train whistle sounds when a train crosses Stouffer Road (open field with nothing in the way) and Avenue K (mill buildings in the way).

The whistles near the mill are going to be the most lower-pitched ones. Try speaking into a paper towel tube and you’ll know why.

Train whistles at the mill. Brings people back to the “good ‘ol days” in the Twin Cities, doesn’t it? I guess that’s why I like it.

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