Night sounds, trains and timepieces

My house is located less than a hundred feet from the Main Line, the principal passenger-rail artery out of Philadelphia to the west – Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and ultimately Chicago and points west. Two dozen times a day passenger trains come bucketing by, but they’re barely a murmur through the dense secondary-growth woods between my back fence and the railroad right-of-way.

The loud ones are the night trains, the big heavy freights they route through when all the passenger cars are put to bed. They come through here rumbling like muted thunder in the still dark, long blasts of airhorns falling away like the mournful cries of vast creatures in a rusty ocean. Some people would find the noise intrusive, but I don’t; it comforts me.

My house is full of clock displays that tick off electronically perfect time – computers, cellphones, electric wall and table clocks. But there’s only one clock in the house I really cherish, and comparatively speaking it’s a pain in the butt because it has to be wound every week. It’s an 80-year-old antique, a regulator clock with a pendulum, and while it keeps inexact time by any modern standard it has two overriding virtues: it ticks, and it sounds the hours with mellow brass chimes that no computer speaker will ever emulate quite correctly. I find those sounds comforting, too.

Like many programmers, I do a lot of work and writing while people on more normal schedules are asleep. The night is quiet and aids concentration, but it can get lonely and produce a kind of disassociation, too. In the small hours of morning, when words and symbols on a screen are beginning to seem flat and unreal, the sound of night trains speaks to me of humanity – of vast rivers of commerce and movement, of crowds and built things and bustle, of dreams crafted into hurtling steel, of a world out there vastly larger than myself. I feel more connected to that outside world when I hear it.

Then the steady tick of the regulator clock speaks of small things. It says: this is your place and things are ordered as they should be. The chimes remind me that time passes and after night will come dawn; there will be talk and breakfasts and sun in the windows and little ordinary pleasures.

This is my first house so near a railroad track, but I think I will always prefer that now. And I expect I’ll always keep at least one balky antique clock where I can hear it sound. The well-lived life may be full of large ideas and emotions and struggles to build something that will last, but the little details also matter.

37 thoughts on “Night sounds, trains and timepieces

  1. I spent the major part of my working life as a television engineer on the midnight shift. There’s a whole little world out there that goes on while most people are asleep. This world of broadcasters, cops, train crews, etc. is small, but very real. It was going on 24/7 long before the Internet.

    I think a lot of people like the sounds made by the older stuff. My favorite example is those that have the latest smartphones, but their ringtone is a duplicate of the ringing bell of the 1948-model bakelite phones of yore. A nice app for them would be to put a picture of a dial on the screen…run your fingers across the ‘dial’ and it moves. Lift your finger and the dial moves back while the phone goes, “Ch ch ch ch ch….”.

  2. >My favorite example is those that have the latest smartphones, but their ringtone is a duplicate of the ringing bell of the 1948-model bakelite phones of yore.

    I’m not quite that retro. My default ringtone is the Star Trek communicator attention sound.

  3. On a related note how much does Hacker culture overlap with the railfanning / model railroading hobbies? After all TMRC started a lot of it.

  4. Sorry, a train line! (Please feel free to delete my frivolous comments, but this post provoked a happy response!)

  5. if (likes(trains) && likes(ticking clocks))
    definitely_not_a_hipster = TRUE

  6. Your vivid imagery caused me to reminisce that soothing sound (especially when I would stay up late at night watching TV and eating Chips Ahoy with milk) of the train that ran by Metairie playground, nearby my grandparents small wooden house on 1616 Brockenbraugh St. Where I am now in Asia, there are only fighting cocks. I remember the whole summer I spent in my father’s basement building a model train world. It seems I was more adept at taking things apart, than putting them back together.

  7. My last apt was about that close to some Conrail lines, and without a noise buffer either. We had to run the window AC box at least in fan mode to generate white noise to jam it for me to sleep. However, one night we did get to see the Ringling Bros. train idling there (probably waiting for the single-track section farther on to clear.)

    They didn’t use the horn because the area was residential (in fact, a level crossing neabry has a sign warning that the trains don’t sound horns approaching).

    If it hadn’t been so loud, I probably would have enjoyed it more – as it was I was merely neutral.

  8. I lived for about 15 years on the second floor of an industrial building next to a crossing. The horns would literally blow 20 feet away level with my windows. The entire building would rock. I, too, found it comforting as it would rock me to sleep. I would automatically plug my ears perfectly in time with the horns.

    My new wife, however, did NOT find it comforting, hence the house purchase.

  9. I like older sounds as well, but alas, all my old clocks are nonfunctional. I should get some sort of program to make my computer do that.

    My watch is not programmable, per se, but recognizably a computer rather than dedicated hardware; for some time I wondered if I could make my watch play the time chimes in its little beeping voice. Can’t with this model, unfortunately, but maybe I’ll get one that can.

  10. I used to live very near a rail line years ago, and even after over 10 years I still miss the sounds of the freight trains going by in the night.

    I even had trouble sleeping without them for a long time. And I still stay up too late without the 2:15am train going by to remind me it’s time to crash.

  11. My house is full of clock displays that tick off electronically perfect time – computers, cellphones, electric wall and table clocks. But there’s only one clock in the house I really cherish, and comparatively speaking it’s a pain in the butt because it has to be wound every week. It’s an 80-year-old antique, a regulator clock with a pendulum, and while it keeps inexact time by any modern standard it has two overriding virtues: it ticks, and it sounds the hours with mellow brass chimes that no computer speaker will ever emulate quite correctly. I find those sounds comforting, too.

    I have one of those; it belonged to my parents. I received it when my mother passed away recently. I’m currently working on repairing it.

  12. I also live near a train and love it. It’s so interconected with everything. I”d have a hard time living away from trains now as well.

  13. My childhood home in Mountain View, California a little over 500 ft. from the Caltran line; I routinely fell asleep listening to the lonesome Doppler shift of the night fright trains’ air horns. In fact they introduced me to the Doppler shift!

  14. I love the sound of trains in the night, but only if they are far enough away to be heard “in the distance”. My first house was within a mile or so of the tracks, which gave a nice listen-for-it-now distant rumble and the mournful sound of the air horn.

    On the other hand, my in-laws live in a house that backs up directly again the tracks, and when the trains go by the entire house shakes. That’s unnerving instead of relaxing.

    But I still love trains. One of the nice things about living near Boston in a former life was getting to ride the commuter rail in and out of the city. And I visit old train musuems when opportunity presents itself.

  15. How often does that train go by?

    So often you’ll hardly even notice it.

  16. Pingback: ESR on railway sounds « Quotulatiousness

  17. I love the train sounds too, particularly the WDM diesel engines of our Indian Railways. The fierce chugging and the blaring horns are far richer than the soft and muted sounds of modern Electric locos.

  18. @Foo: There is certainly some overlap between railfanning and hackerdom. Maybe that was a factor in Google’s decision to put it’s main European engineering centre in Switzerland…

  19. @K: railfanning and hackerdom

    I talked to the MCI fiber guys while they were laying fiber underground along the tracks. Apparently the rails and fiber go the same places, and laying fiber under the tracks is the most obvious idea in the world, since the rr already owns the right of ways.

    Also, the guys I talked to said that Union Pacific owns MCI, which came about just because of the fiber laying.

  20. @Cathy My apartment building is literaly right next to not only the tracks but the railroad crossing. It shakes the building so hard, that when the aftershock from the Virginia earthquake hit the other day, (I’m in WV) I thought nothing of it and assumed it was the train until I realized there was no train sound.

    Still love it. XD

  21. I lived for some time less than twenty metres from a train line. Most of the time I managed to tune out the noise. But sometimes I couldn’t. That same place also was underneath some flight paths, and there were three churches within a three hundred metes (including one about twenty meters away), that rang their bells on Sundays for long periods (I much prefer the Muslim call to pray).

    I did not find the noise comforting, nor did I think of myself as more connected to the world. Instead I cursed the noise.

    I felt for the people who lived in the buildings directly next to the train line, they were got most of the noise, which then was reduced by the time it got to me.

    Admittedly the church bells tolling the hour was appreciated, but they didn’t do that at night. So any late nights I had were without the reminder of the time.

    I now live in an amazingly quite place, and i appreciate this aspect of it all the more now I think about the noise of that previous place.

  22. I have had the pleasure of living proximately to a fairly busy main line tack for SPRR; we recently moved and how are closer yet to a busier BNSF line. In each case myself and my family have decided that we will always want to live proximately to the RR tracks.

    We did move away from an AFB, where we were under the approach turn zone. I really miss the sound of the Jets…

  23. I used to live on a mainline. I grew used to the sound and ultimately it was a comfort.

    I enjoy flying at night, after the control towers are all closed. The air is calm and still, no turbulence from sunlight heating the ground. The lighted sprawl of civilization, pulsing with life and energy, stretches below. Above, the stars splay out across the sky. Vast dark areas of forest and lakes appear as infinite, menacing voids. Your life is dependent on the functioning of so many pieces of technology, all conceived and created by the mind and hand of your fellow man. Complete strangers, somewhere, perhaps long dead, holding you up between death and the infinite. Sometimes you can feel like you are out in space, disconnected from the Earth. Usually, it’s just me and the medi-vac and police helo’s. You can see towns far away on the horizon, connected by luminous threads of highway, streaming with the lighted corpuscles of some great circulatory system. When the towers are closed, you work with the other traffic over the radio. Two beings at separate ends of an electromagnetic tether, sharing a brief moment of professional cooperation when the world below sleeps, unaware. I find it intoxicating, and comforting.

  24. Nice piece, Eric.

    My great-grandparent’s house was located about 150 yards from the same line that you spoke of about fifty (?) miles to the west in Wernersville. There were two sounds that defined that house, the first being the trains passing through town. The second was the tick-tock and chime from the eight day clock on the shelf above the kitchen table. It was a wedding present to my great-grandparents, which means it started chiming around 1910. My great grandmother wound it every Sunday without fail.

    The eight day clock now lives in my mother’s house on a shelf in her living room, and still chimes, and is still wound every Sunday. Her house is about 200 yards from the same set of tracks, about 1/4 mile to the east of my great-grandmother’s house. The clock still chimes as it has for the past century or so (minus a couple of trips to the clock doctor for cleaning and repair). My mother’s health issues will soon bring more changes, and the eight day clock will move to my house. There are no railroads within earshot of my house.

    Will the eight day clock still run in a strange environment without the railroad to keep it company? I hope so.

  25. There’s a railroad bridge right outside my house. T Commuter Rail trains and some freight trains cross it.

    I hate that freaking bridge. Trains thunder by at 2 AM, and if the windows are open it scares the shit out of me and wakes me up. My ears have become so attuned to the dominant frequencies of an approaching train that I started waking up as soon as I heard them, faintly, off in the distance because I knew the roar was coming.

    My first summer in the Boston environs was a rather sleepless one.

    It gets even worse when I have to cross under the bridge to get to work (or anywhere else) in the morning and a train passes by overhead.

    Maybe if the train were distant, off in the woods somewhere like it was at one of my childhood homes, it would bring greater comfort.

  26. @ Jeff Read>

    There was this one engineer who would use the horn in a loud, obnoxious, continuous way out of spite at 3 am….asshole.

    Most would use it in a more nuanced way. I knew them by style. Gentle, only at grade crossings.

    I have a friend who lives near a side track on a freight line. The slamming of the cars at 3 am has had me 3 feet above the bed on several occasions.

    It can sometimes be intrusive.

    Now I live where an owl is the most noisy thing. In the winter, there is a line far away that I can hear. Only when the weather is just right.

    Takes me back.

  27. I live in one of those smaller Texas towns that grew up around the railroad. We regularly (2-3 a day) have large freight trains coming through town at all hours, plus the occasional silver Amtrak Texas Eagle. All can be seen quite clearly from my back porch. My wife and I were concerned about the noise at night when we first moved out there, but it never seemed to bother our eldest and his little brother knows nothing else. Both are huge train lovers.

    My grandparents had two regulator clocks, one in the den and one in the kitchen, both 30-day. They chimed once on the half-hour, and then the hours at the top of the hour. I claimed the long sofa in the den when we would visit, and loved to lie away at night and listen, to each one individually, then together, as they were slightly out of phase with ease other. I know no better lullaby. :)

    @TMR

    Agree completely. You can’t really grasp how alive the world is until you see it at night from 10000 ft.

  28. hari Says: I love the train sounds too, particularly the WDM diesel engines of our Indian Railways. The fierce chugging and the blaring horns are far richer than the soft and muted sounds of modern Electric locos.

    How things change…used to be people complained about those new-fangled diesels, and longed to hear the chuffing of the old steam trains.

  29. I worked at an emergency overflow homeless shelter in Boston back in the late 1980′s. I used to walk home on occasion all the way to Somerville, a trip of several miles. Those quiet, frigid 3AM nights had a certain magic to them, and I always remember the feeling of seeing everything very differently by the time I got home. It wasn’t the sounds, so much, but a feeling that I think is very similar to the one the sounds invoke in you. Other-worldly, but comforting.

  30. A great read about the history of clocks and watches is “Revolution in Time” by David Landes. Chronometers in particular were the high tech of the Eighteenth Century. The part about the development of a modern sense of time is particularly interesting.

  31. I bet this preference helps you haggle a lower price too when buying a house. Real estate markets work in interesting way. The rent of my apartment with a balcony facing a nice green area is 12% lower than the exactly same apartment in the neighboring blocks without a balcony. WTF? Well, it turned out, we have no lifts in these blocks and that one is first floor, mine is third. This is a small thing (helps me keep fit, carrying up 16 litres of drinks) but still matters so much in the price. (Well, small thing for me, not so small for the elderly and couples with toddlers.)

  32. >I think a lot of people like the sounds made by the older stuff.

    When new technologies discovered, usually they are made of the best quality, materials and everything, because they are expensive anyway. Then the usual price competition drives their material and other quality lower and lower, esp. when technological development is so quick that there is no need to plan for durability, as you will replace it with newer ones anyway even while it still works, and thus high quality ones become a niche market, hard to find and expensive. (OK there are other factors as well.) This gives the overall impression that older things were better made, higher quality, “made of real honest materials, not cheap sh*t”, and that in turns creates feelings of liking things “retro”.

  33. “A great read about the history of clocks and watches is “Revolution in Time” by David Landes. Chronometers in particular were the high tech of the Eighteenth Century.”

    On that subject, I can recommend “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. The creation of the first practical ship’s chronometer is quite a story.

    OT: Sobel also wrote ‘Galileo’s Daughter’. Very well done.

  34. I feel the same way about the lulling wail of train wheels against well worn rails. We have a cabin in Montana that is just a few dozen yards from the rails. There is something comforting about the constant singsong the rails make as the Great Northern cars trundle their cargo from parts far east to destinations far west. It is like a steampunk lullaby making one feel safe in the arms of our mother of inventions steely industrial embrace.

  35. We did move away from an AFB, where we were under the approach turn zone. I really miss the sound of the Jets…

    Did you ever live beneath the takeoff path of a unit that flew the F-4 Phantom II? The whole house shook, especially if they were a bit low. Modern turbofans are much quieter.

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