I Hear the Train a Comin’

sunset train

I was reading in bed last night when I heard a distant train whistle. There is something comforting about catching the wail of a train from the snug confines of your bed. It’s a very distinctive sound, of course, and it was deliberately designed that way.  Here’s some background.

A curious and deadly thing happened, when those old steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives. People were being killed at level crossings. Everyone who’d grown up with steam technology knew what a train sounded like. But the whistles on the new diesel engines did not have the same punch, the warning was not as effective, and people died.

One of the most memorable railroad stories of my career (and there have been a few)  came out of a meeting with Robert Swanson. Swanson was an old man, well into his eighties, by the time I visited his AirChime Industries in Burnaby, British Columbia. It was Robert Swanson who had invented the modern train whistle. That signature melancholy howl that Johnny Cash used to sing about is Robert Swanson’s sound.

An old sound made new

An old sound made new

And it saved a lot of lives. Suddenly, with the advent of the five-note adjustable horn, a train sounded like a train again. It was, in fact, mimicking the old steam whistle. Swanson, who’d started out in the logging trade and had even written a couple of books of logging camp poetry, had become a rich man, thanks to his invention. His AirChime horns had also found their way onto Canadian navy vessels. They blasted out warnings from the decks of B.C. ferries.

Every day at noon, since 1967, Robert Swanson’s AirChime horns reverberate the first four notes of Oh, Canada over downtown Vancouver. And, of course, just about every modern locomotive in the world became fitted with the new air horn technology. You can even thank Robert Swanson for the irritating guy behind you at the hockey game who lets go with a hand-held blast every time a penalty is called or a goal is scored.

With that unbridled success story as a set up, I went out to interview Robert Swanson at his factory. We got along famously, and at one point, after showing me the various stages of manufacture, he ushered me into a heavily insulated room. This was where they tested some of the horns. I put on a pair of earphones—for protection—and watched as Mr. Swanson stepped out and closed the vault-like door behind him.

Then I waited. And I waited some more. And then it walloped me. I don’t know how high he cranked up the sound, but the first blast from the bank of horns in the middle of that room threatened to rearrange my chromosomes. I could feel the concussion of sound waves rebounding in my chest cavity. The headphones were probably there to keep liquid from running out of my ears. Another blast or two and I felt like I’d gone a couple of rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard.

By the time I finally stumbled out of the room, Mr. Swanson was having a fine old knee-slapping laugh. Boy, had he set me up!

Of course we had a television camera rolling on all of this.

“How do you feel?” he asked, barely able to contain the giggles.

I’m not sure my response was completely verbal.

Then he added, “Did you pee yourself?”

I had to look down to check.


2 Responses to “I Hear the Train a Comin’”

  1. Growing up in the days of the mighty Baldwin steam locomotives was like seeing the devil on wheels! The smoke stack belching out with glowing cinder sparks flying out and the earth trembling from the weight of the massive black machines. Hoboes would hop off before reaching the rail yard and visit the houses along the tracks for some food. We got plenty of hoboes today, too! The steam whistle was more fun than them air horns today.

  2. Great story! I wish I’d met Swanson myself, but this gives me a very cool sense of him — thanks for it.

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