That lonesome whistle blow.
March 5, 2014 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Let's say you live somewhere in the rural or suburban United States. You hear distant train horns all the time. Where are you?

I live in Southern California. I've been making annual expeditions out to the desert here to record train horns as they pass through small towns and grade crossings in the night. But everything out here is highway, highway, highway ... I can't seem to get a great recording without the distant roar of traffic, even into the wee hours of the night.

I'm up for a road trip (or even a cheap flight) somewhere that the trains blow unperturbed by such ambient noise. If you live somewhere like that, anywhere in the U.S., please tell me where you are, or if you know of such a place.

Technicality: The horns have to be fairly frequent. I can't afford to make a trek like this for just one or two horns a night. Preferably 5+ per hour would be good.
posted by mykescipark to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Moorhead MN.
posted by edgeways at 9:23 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh man, my favorite, favorite thing about visiting my grandparents in Terre Haute when I was little was that there was a window by my bed and I got to sleep with it open all night listening to the trains. I have no idea how actually frequent they are these days, but my memory of it 20 years ago is that it was a magical world where you could hear train horns all the time. I never heard trains back at home.

(I also hear train horns all the time living on the lower west side of Chicago and am similarly charmed by them, but I hear other things, too, like traffic and sirens and ranchera, so I can't recommend that for recording purposes.)
posted by phunniemee at 9:24 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Manhattan, MT.
posted by matty at 9:29 AM on March 5, 2014

Sorry, didn't catch the timing technicality. You'd only get a couple each night in MT.
posted by matty at 9:30 AM on March 5, 2014

Middle Georgia, in the rural farmland around Macon / Perry / Warner Robins, has a lot of areas like this.

I haven't been there in years, but spent my childhood in a small quiet cow town in southern Wisconsin, where the tracks went through the center of town and trains were frequent (at least they were 25 years ago). I would assume there are still lots of little towns in the midwest like this.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:31 AM on March 5, 2014

I had included this proviso in my original question; I probably shouldn't have taken it out: Information about distant memories is not helpful because of the recent proliferation of quiet zones throughout the U.S. I've found one can't assume that trains are still heard where they were once heard. Sorry all!
posted by mykescipark at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2014

I live in Winter Haven, FL - an agricultural area in Central Florida. There is a CSX train transfer area located in the town. At certain times of the year, like during the Orange harvests, the trains are pretty frequent.

But, I don't think you need to come all the way to Florida to find that. CSX is an East Coast rail company.

You should see if you can find a map of transfer locations for Union Pacific, or some other big Western rail company. Anywhere that you find a big train company location, there will be a town and lots of rail activity.
posted by Flood at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2014

I would assume there are still lots of little towns in the midwest like this.

I would also suggest the midwest. I grew up in a tiny town south of Wichita, KS and I just got back from visiting there. While I didn't pay explicit attention to frequency, there were several per day (and night) - I even remarked on it to my mom, who lives less than a mile away from the train tracks - you can hear the whistles very clearly.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2014

Trains sound their horns when they cross roads. You can hear them from my parents' house all night (similar memories to phunniemee's) but finding them with no ambient noise is going to be difficult.
posted by SeedStitch at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Fargo/Moorhead gets about 60 trains per day, but a few years ago they passed a noise ordinance so the trains can't blow their whistles in town.

Tucson is a lot closer to SoCal, gets the same number of trains and doesn't yet have such an ordinance. Tucson is otherwise very quiet and doesn't really have any freeways. You could probably just camp out down on 4th ave and get a bunch of recordings.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Chicago Suburban Milwaukee District / North line is a commuter line that also carries freight, especially at night. There are lots of quiet little suburbs along the line that are fairly silent at night, and in Illinois trains blow the horn at all grade crossings so there's a lot of horns. You can probably find a place or two that are relatively unmolested by passing traffic noise. (There are a few quiet zones but because the tracks are SO close to roads and a lot of the crossings aren't up to standards because they're so old, a lot of places got turned down for quiet zones because they're too dangerous for quiet zones.)

When I drive through rural Northern/Northwestern Illinois (west of Chicago where the freight trains head Pacific-ward), there are always a lot of trains, and long ones, and they blow their horns for all grade crossings. So if you investigated a few likely crossings out in the farmland and found one with fair frequency of train traffic at night, you could make a trip to try it in the Chicago suburbs and then out in the more rural areas if you couldn't get quite enough silence in the suburbs.

You could also try contacting BNSF's Galesburg Classification Yard or some railfans who are familiar with it; it's BNSF's second-largest classification yard and quite rural quite quickly; Galesburg is 45 minutes from anything else so trains going in and out of the yard go through a lot of empty farmland and grade-level crossings. It's about 3 hours by car from Chicago, or you can take Amtrak from Chicago Union Station to Galesburg daily. There is a LOT of railfanning at that yard, I'm sure either the yard or some local railfans could suggest some good places to try. I might be able to put you in touch with some people if you decided to go to Galesburg.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:49 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I live in downtown LA right by the Amtrak yard, and they run all day long and most of the night. No freeway noise, and my street is pretty quiet, except for valet parking. MeMail me if you want more info.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2014

Sandpoint, Idaho. Or at least it was so 20 years ago--big train buff town. You should look into it, it would be a great travel destination.
posted by HotToddy at 9:52 AM on March 5, 2014

Seconding Galesburg, IL. Train horns are the main thing I remember about being there.
posted by evisceratordeath at 10:06 AM on March 5, 2014

Concord, Virginia, although maybe not frequently enough for your purposes.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:18 AM on March 5, 2014

Just checked with my brother, who says that in his area of rural middle Georgia, there are only maybe 5 whistles per night. It's DEAD quiet out there though. He's in a very small town and I feel like you might get more frequent whistles on the outskirts of a larger town like Perry or Warner Robins, with the same nighttime silence.

He also mentioned: "Google maps shows train tracks, look for multiple tracks intersecting. They mostly sound their horns when going from rural to city."
posted by jessicapierce at 10:23 AM on March 5, 2014

In Cincinnati there is an area called Wyoming. I have a friend who has a train track running right behind her house. And yes, the train does sound it's horn. The trains run quite frequently during the day and even at night.
posted by cooker girl at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2014

Last summer I camped near Sandpoint, ID for two nights. I am a light sleeper and I can verify that the train horns do indeed still blow--every 15-20 minutes until 9-10 pm, and then hourly or so. You could probably get a cheap flight into Spokane, WA. The drive from Spokane to Coeur d' Alene, ID is just interstate, but Coeur d' Alene, Sandpoint, and the spaces inbetween are beautiful. Bonus: between Coeur d' Alene and Sandpoint you will find the Rathdrum prairie, an expanse of farm fields featuring trains all night as of 5 years ago.
posted by esoterrica at 10:59 AM on March 5, 2014

If you ever happen to be in NY, any town with an LIRR station will have an abundance of train noise, and in the smaller towns there will not be other noise competing with the train noise. Specifically I know in Northport and Greenlawn this is the case--and trains can be heard more or less anywhere in those towns--any points further east would probably work as well.
posted by syrenka at 11:03 AM on March 5, 2014

Southeastern Minnesota along the Mississippi River is good because the big river bluffs amplify the noise and it echoes down the river. Stillwater or Red Wing might be good. I would guess a lot of small towns along the Mississippi in Iowa too.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:11 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Grants, New Mexico is situated along a busy UP rail line and is far enough away from Interstate 40 that you could probably easily record railroad sounds without highway noise.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:11 AM on March 5, 2014

We hear train horns at our house from a freight line that's really quite distant, about 10 mountainous miles away. We hear them best during spring and fall when the windows are open. We're in East Tennessee, hard up against Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
posted by workerant at 11:12 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've lived and heard train horns in the following places:

Rural northeastern Kentucky near the Ashland area.
Lexington, KY
Great Falls, MT

Of those three I would say Great Falls, MT would be the place to get a great recording.
posted by at 11:18 AM on March 5, 2014

Trains run up and down both sides of the Mississippi River, probably for the entire length, but I don't know the southern half all that well. Per nakedmolerats, the bluffs seem to do something magical to the whistles.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 11:25 AM on March 5, 2014

Flagstaff, Az is on the same line as Grants and it is about a days drive from LA. The line has more than 100! trains a day through the middle of town and you can get the whistle sounds from 10' (deafening) to several miles depending on location in town, day or night at no more than 30 minute intervals. You can get it with or without highway noise as I-40 also runs through the town and it carries about 30-40% truck traffic through there. On the West side of town as you come in is a HUGE hill that the trucks all use their Jake brakes on and it is also a really distinctive sound. If you don't want highway noise just go north from town and record their at whatever distance you want. (I-40 is south of the tracks).
posted by bartonlong at 11:31 AM on March 5, 2014

Flagstaff has also passed a no whistle or horns ordinance. I think Tucson is the only large city in AZ that hasn't.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:40 AM on March 5, 2014

I never thought I'd recommend someone consider planning a vacation to Belen, NM, but here we are.

There are two major train lines that cross in Belen, "The Hub City". The actual city of Belen is a few miles away from the interstate. I don't know if they have a noise ordinance, but the train tracks radiating out from Belen go through rural areas with lots of farms and small roads and a reservation.

There's also a commuter train that has led to complaints about the whistle noise. In the winter the first runs of that train might be early enough for night recording.

I don't have personal experience hearing the whistles, but some googleing turns up lots of people complaining about them, and a blogger who seeks them out and can hear them from their house.

Belen seems to be big on promoting themselves as "The Hub City" for tourism. You might try calling the Harvey House museum to ask more questions and find out if Belen is where you want to go on vacation.
posted by yohko at 11:52 AM on March 5, 2014

Oh man, Harpers Ferry, WV.

From Wikipedia: 40-50 CSX freight trains daily pass through Harpers Ferry and over the bridge spanning the Potomac River. There is also a tunnel one side of the river, so I don't know if that's what causes them to always be blowing their horns but they sure do!

I once stayed there off-season, dark and stormy night, in an old creaky bed and breakfast, and the horns were going all night. After a day visiting the weird but cool half-deserted, animatronic history museum/park (which is actually spread out over many houses, so you feel like you're just entering someone's home and then there's a moving dummy in there forchristsake) - the sound was creepy as hell and it was AWESOME.
posted by atlantica at 11:56 AM on March 5, 2014

You might also be able to generate additional whistles by having someone stand in a lit area where trains are going slowly by and make the "air horn" gesture.
posted by yohko at 11:56 AM on March 5, 2014

Sorry about the multiple posts, I'd forgotten this:
The Train Horn Rule and Quiet Zones page at the FRA might be helpful for figuring out specific recording locations.
posted by yohko at 12:06 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I live in Sandpoint, Idaho and we have had 3 young women killed by being hit by trains in the last year, in separate incidents. Sorry for that graphic everyone but I'm still angry about it (What were these girls thinking?? I feel so bad for them.). But it is relevant here because the engineers are being extra cautious as you can imagine. And blaring their horns more often.
posted by cda at 12:57 PM on March 5, 2014

I'm going to tell you the absolute best place in the USA for this: Rochelle, IL, specifically the Rochelle Railroad Park. If there is too much noise, both Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway have rail yards just far enough outside of town that it will be you and the corn. Fly into Chicago, go west for 1.5 hours.

More horns than you will know what to do with.....
posted by lstanley at 1:06 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Norman, Oklahoma. Lots of trains, lots of horns.
posted by norm at 1:15 PM on March 5, 2014

Memphis. ALL TRAINS ALL NIGHT! I'm glad I like them!
posted by tomboko at 1:19 PM on March 5, 2014

I grew up in Waycross, Georgia, which is a small town with a lot of rural areas, and home to CSX's Rice Yard. It's one of the largest railroad classification yards in the country. Thus, tons of trains going in and out, and between there and Jacksonville, FL, those trains are going to run through many small town crossings where they'd need to signal. It's not the most exciting area to visit, but would certainly fit what you're looking for.
posted by bizzyb at 1:31 PM on March 5, 2014

Palatka, Florida (an hour south of Jacksonville). Very small rural town. I used to listen to all the different whistle patterns while I was going to sleep at night. Also, Hwy 17 that runs between Jax and Palatka follows the train tracks, so you hear a lot of whistles when they approach crossing roads.
posted by hollygoheavy at 2:07 PM on March 5, 2014

Albion, MI. (not currently on the quiet zone list)

(on a side note, I get not wanting to hear train horns, but they are a SAFETY FEATURE. so people know trains are approaching and get off the tracks. wtf quiet zones.)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:30 PM on March 5, 2014

I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and I used to hear train horns throughout the night and first thing in the morning.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:07 PM on March 5, 2014

Trains passed through Ames, IA every 20 minutes when I lived there. About once per hour through Moscow, IA when I lived near there. There are a lot of trains in Iowa and lots of places that would have little traffic late at night.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:35 PM on March 5, 2014

Thanks everyone! I'll be back in Chicago for my class reunion in June, so I guess I'll start with Rochelle and Galesburg and we'll see how that goes. In the meantime, I have lots of other points on the dartboard!
posted by mykescipark at 7:59 PM on March 5, 2014

Oh, man. State parks. I drove from Mississippi to Minnesota, camping in parks all the way. Not one single night was free from trains, and other noise was minimal. It was striking.
posted by thebrokedown at 11:02 PM on March 5, 2014

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