The Haunting Howl of Riverside Railways

Transport train at dusk in Riverside.

The whistle of a metal worm seeps into my ears. As I lay on my bed at night, staring at the ceiling, here in the city of Riverside, the worm rolls along metal tracks. It wails mournfully in the far distance.

The worm is a train. It sounds like a singular, metallic creature, but in fact the click-clack-click-clack on the tracks is composed of many trains in close succession as they enter and exit the city; giving the impression of an endless, thousand-mile, segmented body. Their whistles are ceaseless, as they blow at every grade intersection warning automobile drivers and pedestrians.

The train has been referred to as an Iron Horse. This is due mainly to steam power being defined in terms of the horsepower that once dominated transportation, and presumably because of the clickety-clack of the wheels over the rail joints. But for me, the train is as dominant in this city as it was in the nineteenth century. It is insidious with its whistle winding its way into my mind. For this reason, I see it as a worm, an underground creature, not a mammal like a horse, winding its way down my ear canal.

I've never lived in a town where the trains, or their whistles more specifically, are constant characters. I think that it is why there has never been the image of a train in my dreams. However, the whistles of the two transcontinental rail lines -- the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad -- that trisect Riverside (even vivisect when it comes to my brain being kept awake by click clack, wooooo woooo), are such dominant sounds that they insinuate themselves into both my waking and dreaming lives now.

Train tracks dissecting Riverside | Source: Google Maps.
Train tracks dissecting Riverside | Source: Google Maps.

This "train whistle constant," as I've come to call the phenomenon, does not bother me actually. In essence, just as the sound of the whistle shapes this city, it hones me too. I never "loose my train of thought," literally, by living in Riverside. In fact, I feel as though it provides an aural beacon that keeps my mind steady.

Train Whistle Constant

Riverside once hailed the train. It brought settlers and the cargo here to the edge of Los Angeles. It took the city's products, namely its citrus, to elsewhere. And so the city prospered. The town has grown to a point where the tracks, once on the outskirts, are now in the middle of town. This shift in its urban landscape is the reason that the whistles now emanate from the center of town and can, thus, be heard from anywhere in the city.

Each year, flatbed train cars carry over 700,000 double-stacked cargo containers from the coastal ports of San Pedro, through inland Riverside, into the Mojave Desert, skirting Las Vegas, spreading throughout the Midwest via feeder lines, and arriving at the east coast eventually. As to their contents, my feverish imagination veers between the transportation of spent nuclear rods to quarantined extraterrestrials.

Fairmount Park, Riverside.
Fairmount Park, Riverside.

The closest tracks are a mile away, yet the whistles sound so close. My hypothesis is that the hills around my house contain and bounce the sound around, as if we were in an amphitheater. All the residents are forced into being unwilling audience members. We listen to the ongoing drama of the Industrial Revolution as the nineteenth century stretches into the twenty-first.

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A Whistle's First Expression

Originating in England in 1832, the train whistle was not invented in order to seep into my dreams or to express emotions for the machine. Rather, it was invented as a warning device and as a way to communicate to other workers up and down the rail. Train whistles exist to this day as a warning device for one reason alone -- they are inexpensive when compared to other options, such as raising the rails above the intersecting roads used by cars.

In the past, with steam whistles, an engineer would have some opportunity to be expressive. A pull cord would allow them to vary the rate at which steam was released therefore they had some control. Later, pushbuttons were introduced, which took away the possibility for nuance. Both the old steam whistle and the current compressed air whistle both waver in pitch too, suggesting a cry or wail. Different whistle sounds were created for different train lines in the U.S. in order to distinguish them, ranging from high pitched to deeper tones. The Union Pacific line that runs through this city was once known for their chimes that sounded like a steamboat.

In the past, the different combination of long and short whistles created a code for messages that could be heard down the line. Radio communication is used today mainly. Nonetheless, some of the signals are used still. In the U.S., for example, a combination of two long whistles, followed by a short whistle, then followed by another long whistle, indicates that the train is approaching a public grade crossing. This warning is the source for most whistles heard in cities and for complaints by residents to city councils.

I think about babies in Riverside, born into the sound of the whistle. It is like a coal mine or sawmill company town in the past where the steam whistle predominated and determined the start of the day, breaks, lunch time, and day's end. It was a constant reminder of being part of the machine that determined the town's livelihood, with no opportunity provided for a response, not even a collective whistle back from puckered lips.

The whistles are like church bells, although they ring on the hour from their steeples instead of being constant. However, the capitals of commerce come to mind with the train whistles, rather than they being reminders of spiritual sanctuaries. They evoke the ghosts of English coal mines in the seventeenth century that sought a less expensive method for pumping out water that flooded into them, thus, came the invention of the steam pump. It led to boiler technology and eventually to steam powered trains and their accompanying steam whistles to warn pedestrians to move off the tracks of capitalism making its way through England and Europe. Although, it would be America that would later lay more tracks than its Western cousins laid altogether.

The Sound of Melancholia

For some, hearing the "train whistle constant" may produce nostalgia for a love affair with machines. But by the mid-1950s, the dominance of steam trains among commercial and passenger lines waned. Perhaps, this outcome contributes to today's associations of melancholy and loneliness with the train?

Why does the whistle sound melancholy? I think that it has to do with signifying "the end" of something, at least as depicted in movies: two lovers separating at the train station or hobos (now today's homeless) running alongside the tracks and trying to jump into an empty cargo car. But that was when there were boxcars that men at stations had to load and unload which provided an opportunity for stowaways to jump aboard. Now, the cargo trains use standardized, sealed containers mostly, which can be unloaded from ships at port by cranes, loaded onto train cars, and then unloaded onto individual flatbed eighteen-wheelers; and they never have to be opened. No one could get inside of them and if they did then they would suffocate more than likely.

The whistles sound lonely to an everyday listener like me. Their sounds are like a hard luck robots whistling to keep themselves company as they head into the desert. They move from station to station with no time to stop for love. It is as though they mourn their expulsion from an Eden in which human and machines were once together, but have since been separated from one another. Seemingly, the train wants communion with humans again, and its whistle is the melodic lure for reconnection.

Occupied by this cyborgian fantasy, I can rest easy now, as my mind and soul can leave behind identification with the amniotic fluid of a biological birth, a place where the sound of a mother's heartbeat once dominated, and embrace the ambient and ceaseless soundscape of the train whistle.


Since today's trains do not consist of boxcars that I could jump in and ramble across the U.S., I can't imagine being like Delta blues legend David "Honeyboy" Edwards. He rode the rails for thirty years, traveling from Mississippi to Chicago, "roamin' and ramblin'," as he sung, playing his harmonica.

Like a song, the train whistle is not a single note, but a chord, made of two or three notes. Musicians and songwriters have included or referenced the sound of the train whistle in their songs for decades, like the numerous ones by Johnny Cash or Boxcar Willie. Or the well-known songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "The Wabash Cannonball," and "The Ballad of Casey Jones." Some songs act as reminders of a life outside of prison walls, as avenues to adventure, as symbols of the achievements of industry, and also of the disasters of collisions and exploding boilers.

However, I'm more interested in sound work that takes not the train whistle's musical quality as a starting point, but rather takes its invasive quality in the aural landscape as found sound. I think of mid-twentieth century French composer, Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer, an early pioneer with the avant-garde music known as musique concrete that utilizes real-world sounds. Ã?tude aux chemins de fer, or Railroad Study (1948), features recordings of noises made by trains running on railroad tracks, as a way to bring awareness of the "music" of the city. Several decades later pioneering composer for minimal music, Steve Reich created "Different Trains" (1988) for string quartet and tape, which combined train sounds on tape and sampled train whistles. In the work he uses their sounds to compare and contrast train sounds he heard while a child from 1939-41 in the U.S. with those that might have been heard by prisoners on the way to Nazi death camps during the same period in Europe.

These works bring attention to the symbolic quality of train sounds in particular historical periods and heighten the awareness of sound by asking implicitly, what is "music?" In a broader, philosophical context, they question how definitions and categories are determined.

Whistle Zen

Union Pacific, Fairmount Park, Riverside.
Union Pacific, Fairmount Park, Riverside.

The constancy of the sound is similar to the experience of living in an ocean beachfront town. The crashing of the waves is ever present and dominant. It is an oceanic experience of infinity and eternity that makes me not care about the beginning of anything, whether Adam and Eve or The Big Bang, because the sound evokes a sense of "nowness" as the new norm.

I attribute this nowness to a kind of oneness with the machine via its whistle. In spite of viewing myself as part of a machine in this manner, I feel less like a cog in the proverbial wheels of commerce. This is a reversal from my earlier feelings about being moored to the nineteenth century's soot, child labor, and unwieldy transformation of society by the Industrial Revolution; symbolized by the steam-powered locomotive. I've found a way to approach a sound that people have complained about since the arrival of the train with the intention of using it for another, more personal reason. I've appropriated the incessant train whistle as my personal soundtrack in order to keep me on track of living with awareness and intention.

The whistle, ephemeral as it is, remains in the mind, more permanent that the planned obsolescence of the appliances shipped into the city by the trains. Listening to the whistle provides a transformative experience. The train whistle constant does help as a kind of citywide metronome to keep one's mindfulness from derailing.

I have a firmer idea of what I'm hearing now. I don't need earplugs anymore. It's all music now. There is no such thing as silence, not even in one's own mind.


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Top Image: Transport train at dusk in Riverside.

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