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Gone, like a train...
June 30, 2008 6:26 AM   Subscribe

There's just something so pleasing about watching a mixed freight train go by.

Here are several versions of the classic train number, "Wreck of the Old 97":

Hank Snow
Johnny Cash
Roy Acuff
Boxcar Willie
The Seekers
Flatt & Scruggs with... the Beverly Hillbillies!

This clip features Johnny Cash once again, but the video is a crude CG reenactment of the crash.

and finally, this old recording by ??? features yet another curious (and even more crude) CG reenactment of the crash...

Train song lovers might also want to check out my FPP from earlier this month on The Wabash Cannonball.
posted by flapjax at midnite (64 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Okay, I have to link to just one more train disaster...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:43 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


That was pleasing, indeed.

Also pleasing: train nerds. The title of one of the related YouTube videos over there is "RARE!!! BNSF Freight Train with 10 Engines!!! *MUST SEE!!!*". I like people who like things.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:45 AM on June 30, 2008 [11 favorites]


The Great Flagstaff BNSF Seligman Subdivision Crossing of March 19th 2008 at 12:09PM
posted by stbalbach at 6:45 AM on June 30, 2008


One of the comments from your first link: "That tuning of the K3LA sounded like a Canadian National K3L horn."

I laughed. And then remembered that I can tell the difference between Terry Bozzio and Chad Wackerman's drumming on Frank Zappa bootlegs.
posted by Jofus at 6:49 AM on June 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


That was a delight, flap.
I took a little vacation thanks to you.
posted by Dizzy at 6:55 AM on June 30, 2008


Just don't stand adjacent the tracks. Sometimes the strapping on the lumber loads snaps. The loose strap then dangles out the side of the train. You don't want it to get a head.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:14 AM on June 30, 2008


I work on the railroad, and I have to say, being 20 ft away from a full freight when it zooms by at 65 mph still gives me goosebumps. From what I understand mid-train helpers are fairly common in mountainous regions. Nice video.
posted by Vindaloo at 7:18 AM on June 30, 2008


I work on a dead-end road on the far side of some 55 MPH tracks, and (there goes another one) really don't mind waiting when trains delay my getting away from the office. I used to design railcar parts, and it's fun to see and think, hey, there's one of my valves, and a skid, and there's one of those 200 plastic pellet cars from '99 that had the crease in the sidewall but the AAR said was ok....


Plus, diesel-electric locomotives are just such sexy brutes...
posted by notsnot at 7:20 AM on June 30, 2008


I was wondering what a "mid-train helper" was. Then I saw them.
This was strangely relaxing.
Trains are cool.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:27 AM on June 30, 2008


Now that's a freight train. Not that I encounter many freight trains, but that's the first time I've seen "mid-train helper" engines. I guess it makes sense to put a few engines in the middle rather than having them all at the front, for going around curves. (Or is there some other reason?)

I also liked the contrast between the feeling of wide-open emptiness that a huge freight train evokes and the very urban graffiti on the boxcars. Burlington Northern Santa Fe pulls a little bit of the city across the deserts and prairies.
posted by Quietgal at 7:29 AM on June 30, 2008


What's with the excessive use of the airhorn? It sounds like someone is standing on the tracks or something.
posted by Authorized User at 7:30 AM on June 30, 2008


That looks just like the train I got stuck behind 2 days later and 1500 miles east. Made me 4 minutes and 31 seconds late for work.
posted by Daddy-O at 7:34 AM on June 30, 2008


"I'll take 'Threads that will only get comments from men' for $500, Alex."
posted by planetkyoto at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yikes! I withdraw my comment and skulk quietly back into the corner.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:37 AM on June 30, 2008


I used to always count the cars and try do a rough estimate of the weight they would be pulling if all the cars were at capacity. The numbers were always staggering. Of course some cars were probably empty or not at full capacity but still I am in awe of what a train can do.
posted by srboisvert at 7:39 AM on June 30, 2008


...for going around curves. (Or is there some other reason?)

I'm no train expert, but I'd imagine going up slopes and upgrades and such would be a bigger reason than curves.

Yikes! I withdraw my comment and skulk quietly back into the corner.

A wise course of action!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:43 AM on June 30, 2008


Authorized User, around here they blow for each street crossing. They could be doing the same thing there. Keep in mind that the sound carries a long way.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:59 AM on June 30, 2008


I'm no train expert, but I'd imagine going up slopes and upgrades and such would be a bigger reason than curves.

Actually, (former locomotive engineer here), there are two (maybe three) reasons for helper engines:

1. When extra help is needed to shove a train over a particularly hilly portion of its route, and it is uneconomical to use all the extra horsepower for the entire run;

and

2. (somewhat rare) the train is so long that it's likely you will exceed the tensile strength of the draft gear (couplers, etc) trying to pull it all from the front end.

3. Two trains have been put together to be treated as one for scheduling/dispatching purposes.
posted by pjern at 8:16 AM on June 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Authorized User, around here they blow for each street crossing.

They are *required* to by the rulebook, unless precluded by local ordinance. The standard "whistle signal" for a grade crossing is : Two long blasts, one short blast, and one long blast to be carried through until the front of the locomotive enters the crossing.
posted by pjern at 8:21 AM on June 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never seen a freight car wide open like that CN one. Full of hobos?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:29 AM on June 30, 2008


Very cool.

Train song lovers might also want to check out my FPP from earlier this month on The Wabash Cannonball.

Are you taking nominations for your next train-song post?
posted by homelystar at 8:35 AM on June 30, 2008


Very cool. I live just south of a train-crossing and get stopped quite frequently. I commute by bicycle, so I have a leg up on the people in cars. Sometimes I wait like everyone else, but sometimes I ride a quarter mile down the track, through a small warehouse district, where there is an somewhat forgotten ped bridge. I have to carry my bike up a lot of stairs, but the view is one of my favorite. From the top to the bridge, directly over the top of the moving train, I can see the cars snaking their way up the track with downtown's buildings standing in the background. Pure urban beauty.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:34 AM on June 30, 2008


This is so simple but for some reason is one of my favourite posts in a long time.

I live a couple of blocks away from a train overpass and I always feel happy when I cross under on my bike when a train is passing overhead.

When I was a kid we used to spend summers at my grandparents' house, which was about a kilometre from a train crossing. When we heard the whistle blowing from across the bay we'd run like crazy to get as close to the tracks as we could before the train passed. Fond memory.
posted by loiseau at 9:34 AM on June 30, 2008


I turned the sound off. Isis's "Glisten" syncs up with this suprisingly well.
posted by Electrius at 9:36 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Union Pacific railroad tracks run right behind my house, so I see this sort of thing every day!
posted by optovox at 9:38 AM on June 30, 2008


Another thing I love about being near train tracks is that from my apartment at night I can just hear the thunk-ka-thunk-ka-thunk of one passing... not too loud, just perfect.
posted by loiseau at 9:40 AM on June 30, 2008


I love Wreck of the Old 97.

Here are some other train related songs; Johnny Cash - Let The Train Blow The Whistle
Guy Clark - Desperados Waiting For A Train

REM Driver 8 (Live, 1985)
posted by nola at 9:56 AM on June 30, 2008


pjern, thank you for your helpful and interesting explanation. #2 and #3 explain why the helpers are in the middle, but for #1, wouldn't it have been easier to put the helpers at the front instead of shunting cars around to stick the helpers in the middle? Or put them at the rear where they could push? Seems like stopping the train and shuffling cars around would cost a lot of time.

I'm not a train nerd but I love the big beasts. I ride Caltrain to work every day and it still kinda bugs me that they don't turn the train around at San Jose, they just put it in reverse all the way back to San Francisco. It seems undignified, somehow.
posted by Quietgal at 9:59 AM on June 30, 2008


Yes. I just moved from a place with a great fifth-floor view right above the tracks, with downtown Baltimore in the background. I also just loved the sounds at night and am missing them lately. Nice.
posted by zoinks at 10:03 AM on June 30, 2008


Authorized User, around here they blow for each street crossing.

They are *required* to by the rulebook, unless precluded by local ordinance. The standard "whistle signal" for a grade crossing is : Two long blasts, one short blast, and one long blast to be carried through until the front of the locomotive enters the crossing.


OK that explains it. Sounds quite noisy to me though, do they do it at night too because while people do get used to trains passing it's hard to imagine getting used to something that loud and attention grabbing.

Here in Finland I've almost never heard trains use their horn.
posted by Authorized User at 10:20 AM on June 30, 2008


I've never had anything as soul-shaking as being woken in the dark of night by one of those long minor-chord horns wailing over the deep south town I was staying in. I love that noise.
posted by bonaldi at 10:29 AM on June 30, 2008


Authorized User, having grown up with a train track about 75 feet from my bedroom window and there being crossings less than a quarter mile on either side of me. You do get used to the whistle as well as the train. Honestly after growing up with it I find the sound relaxing.

But yes, whistles blow all day and all night. I'm generally very annoyed with any place that has local ordinances that silence them, it's there for a reason.
posted by MrBobaFett at 10:32 AM on June 30, 2008


The standard "whistle signal" for a grade crossing is : Two long blasts, one short blast, and one long blast to be carried through until the front of the locomotive enters the crossing.

I just heard that exact pattern as I was reading your comment. You can hear the train horns over two mountain ranges away from where we are in Banff.

A big problem over here is that grain seeps from the bottom of the train cars and accumulates on the tracks, which leads to bears hanging out on the tracks and getting killed by trains. We've lost a few black bears and a grizzly this year to this problem. It's enough that they run a vacuum trolley along the tracks regularly now to pick up the loose grain.
posted by furtive at 10:56 AM on June 30, 2008


I live by some tracks, and we don't get used to the sound at night. It is indeed rather soul-shaking, especially at two in the morning. Ugh. Otherwise, I actually really like trains. Fortunately they're putting up some gates, so they can stop blowing the horn.

If you really want soul-shaking noises, though, you can't beat hearing military jets practicing low-altitude maneuvers directly overhead. Sounds like the sky's going to split right in half.
posted by echo target at 10:58 AM on June 30, 2008


You call that a train? These are some trains.
posted by anthill at 11:03 AM on June 30, 2008


wouldn't it have been easier to put the helpers at the front instead of shunting cars around to stick the helpers in the middle? Or put them at the rear where they could push? Seems like stopping the train and shuffling cars around would cost a lot of time.

It depends. Sticking them in the middle, depending on the route profile, may be necessitated by the dynamics of pushing vs. pulling a mile-or-more long cut of cars. Again, they may have tacked two trains together in the indicated video.

It used to be common, back in the days of the wooden caboose, to cut helpers in in front of the caboose, because of the very real danger of collapsing the (relatively weak) caboose in between the helpers and 10,000 tons of coal hoppers. Nowadays, it's more likely that crewed helpers (as opposed to remote-controlled) will shove on the back of the train, cut off on-the-fly at the top of the hill, and drift back downgrade to wait for the next train up. This used to be very common around Altoona, PA and the Horseshoe Curve on the old Pennsylvania Railroad.
posted by pjern at 11:06 AM on June 30, 2008


Anthill: The video in your first link (which I also linked to in a previous post) has one of the great bits of steam video - 844 is just moseying along, easing the train out of the siding, when, at 1:35 in, the last car clears the switch and the engineer stands up, and opens the throttle wide. Listen carefully to the exhaust barking as he begins to 'hook it up. ' She'll be doing 70 MPH by the end of the clip.
posted by pjern at 11:15 AM on June 30, 2008


I've got a little postage stamp of land in West Virginia with a cabin that makes trailer meth labs look pretty spiffy, and the fact that the trains essentially run through my front yard makes all the mold, wasp stings, and outhouse issues completely worthwhile. They come through day and night, but the night ones are the best, when you're curled up on the couch, reading a book, and they come rolling in like mechanical thunder, all low and rich and clanky and sounding like the world turning on its axle.

Sometimes I sit right at the gully that runs along the tracks to watch and listen, and there's this sort of wonderful electric feeling that comes from having tank cars looming over you that all read "SULFURIC ACID" in huge white letters down their flanks. You just sit and count cars and time sorts of stops, and that's just fine, really. Once in a while, they stop cold, often when I'm just coming up from swimming in the river, and I have to work up the nerve to climb on, cross the metal grating catwalk, and hop down, or just head back to the water until the train starts moving again.

How sad that we've replaced so much of this network with lumbering, joyless tractor trailers, roaring around in herds on the highways. A convoy of trucks will never have the same feeling as this, I think.
posted by sonascope at 11:18 AM on June 30, 2008 [7 favorites]


pjern, you made a good post back there. My only wish is for some US steam+train+internet nerds to get out the mics and make some recordings as good as this guy's.
posted by anthill at 12:01 PM on June 30, 2008


Flagpole chains tinkling
in a schoolyard; the train's low
mourning---sounds from Grandpa's house.
posted by Dizzy at 12:53 PM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


anthill and pjern, that's some great footage! It's neat that some railroads are sentimental enough to keep a few steam engines running, even neater that the engines occasionally do some real work in addition to carrying tourists around.

Since that thread is closed (and I missed it first time around, drat!) can we continue the discussion of a steam revival here? Especially since oil prices have gone even higher in the meantime ...

The energy density of coal and its "pourability" make it probably the only viable fuel for a freight-pulling steam train, but what about passenger trains? The dinky little 5-car trains I ride every day can't be all that heavy (as a railroad measures "heavy"), so could they be drawn by a steam engine that burns something like wood or paper? (All that paper that's allegedly sitting in warehouses waiting to be recycled could haul my butt to work in the mornings - sweet!) There's still the question of how to feed it into the firebox, but engineers have solved tougher problems I guess. Anybody working on steam-powered commuter trains?

And if they are, could they please put the drive rods (or whatever those things are called) on the outside just like on the classic steam engines? Seeing those rods push the wheels around is a great part of the charm of steam engines.
posted by Quietgal at 2:00 PM on June 30, 2008


sonascope: not to step on your dreams, but jumping on trains that are stopped is an easy way to die. when a long consist starts up again, the slack in the couplings adds up as the train moves forward, and could easily jerk you right off the catwalk and onto the tracks.

on a note unrelated to decapitation, i took amtrak from NYC to portland oregon a few weeks ago. it was really awesome and way better then flying (if you get a sleeper, anyway). far and away better then any plane ride i've ever been on.
posted by Mach5 at 2:13 PM on June 30, 2008


I don't get you Train People at all.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2008


Johnny Cash's Performance of "Wreck of the Old 97" at San Quentin is pretty incredible. Cash is probably drunk, most likely taking speed, and was totally out of control, much like the engine in the song...

Cos he was going down a grade making 90 miles an hour,
The whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,
Scalded to death by the steam.

One more time!


At which point Johnny Cash starts to whoop and howl like whistle on a freight train. Pure magic.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:37 PM on June 30, 2008


Here's a Japanese freight train on the Hokuriku Main Line near Itoigawa, probably here.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:44 PM on June 30, 2008


Having just gotten into Thomas the Tank Engine with my two-year-old daughter, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

One question: why was one of the mid-train helpers facing backwards? Anybody know?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 4:06 PM on June 30, 2008


Graffiti takes a lot of the pleasure out of watching a passing freight, for me. C'mon, taggers, it's been 30 years since you started doing this. You've filthed up the world. Now it's time to stop and move on.
posted by Faze at 4:13 PM on June 30, 2008


Running a steam locomotive = hard work. One of the reasons I don't do it anymore- I'm not physically up to it.
posted by pjern at 4:35 PM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


why was one of the mid-train helpers facing backwards? Anybody know?

"Front" and "Back" are nebulous concepts with diesel locomotives. They run equally well in either direction. General practice is that the short hood faces "forward", but the Norfolk and Western ordered their locomotives from EMD with the long hood designated "Front", and the engineer's station on the corresponding side.

Trivia bit- locomotives are driven from the right side, facing forward. The original locomotives shipped over here from Jolly Olde in the 1830's were set up that way, and that tradition has lingered.
posted by pjern at 4:40 PM on June 30, 2008


Thanks, pjern. How does one go about becoming a locomotive engineer?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 5:02 PM on June 30, 2008


flapjax, this is an inspired post.

I grew up within constant earshot of trains, and never realized I would miss it until it wasn't the case anymore. The most eye-pleasing thing to roll by aside from a cute girl, to be sure.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:16 PM on June 30, 2008


I didn't follow a traditional path- I started by volunteering at a railroad museum, doing all sorts of work, working my way up into braking, being a conductor, eventually firing the locomotive, and then learning to run it. Along the way, I met people, and had little trouble getting a real railroad job.

It's really a lot of fun in many respects- I really enjoyed having the skillset to stop a 9000-ton train within inches of a desired spot, and weekends with the steam loco were an absolute gas. There's probably lots of old 8mm home movies of me running the steamer, I'm sure, and I keep an eye on youtube just in case one of them shows up there.
posted by pjern at 5:25 PM on June 30, 2008


When I was 20 I bought an old house in Atlanta that backed up to the railroad yard. My Dad laughed at me when he saw the excitement in my eyes looking at those tracks. He said that made the property worth so much less. I thought of the tracks as a bonus. Sitting on my hill, watching a train pull through was fun, but what really got me was the sound.

It was a symphony of cacophony. Some of the sounds repeated, as each car hit the same bump between track sections, ca-chunk-ca-chunk, ca-chunk-ca-chunk, while the soaring solos of squeaky wheels panned in stereo as they screeched by. The grind and clang of loose metal parts slowly complained out an odd measure.

I wanted to record that, to share the experience, to let other people know about the secret symphony. But I realized that you literally had to be there; that the tall golden grass and the painted cars and the heaving rails were all part of the experience. I should have charged admission.
posted by bitslayer at 7:57 PM on June 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


I've been a (model) railroader ever since I was a little kid, so I love this stuff. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to ride in the cab of this brute simply by being in the right place at the right time. Absolutely awesome. Steam engines do this to adults and kids alike for some reason.

But lately, I prefer the Swiss version, particularly narrow (meter) gauge, on a rack. (Requisite cows included). Although the Germans, since reunification in 1989, have a great one, too, but pure adhesion. There's also a surviving narrow gauge railway on the German island of Ruegen still in regular passenger service (catchy music included). And, you can travel easily, quickly, and in comfort between these old-fashioned, steam tracks on modern standard gauge routes. You can use one of the provided seats inside the cabin, or make your own - either way you should buy a ticket.
posted by webhund at 9:01 PM on June 30, 2008


Driving a steam engine -- that's gotta be some kind of thrill, pjern. I don't suppose there are many others who can claim to have done that.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:59 PM on June 30, 2008


Compared to the Union Pacific monsters, that Swiss engine is a tea kettle. It belongs on Cute Overload!

The comments in this thread are really neat - trains, especially steam trains, seem to bring out the poetry in everyone. In particular I loved bonaldi's lonesome whistle, sonascope's mechanical thunder and bitslayer's secret symphony. It's often the sound of trains that's so evocative; once in a blue moon I hear a train's horn at night, far away, and it sounds so mournful and haunting it could be a living creature calling to its pack.

Phooey, I misinterpreted the info about UP 844; I thought it picked up a string of freight cars at a siding, but it was actually getting out of the way of a freight train. Sigh ... I guess 844 just hauls tourists around, but it's better than the scrap-heap.

Thanks, flapjax, for another great post.
posted by Quietgal at 10:18 PM on June 30, 2008


Driving a steam engine -- that's gotta be some kind of thrill, pjern. I don't suppose there are many others who can claim to have done that.

I did when I was younger.

A suggestion for you computer literate folks. A FPP on Dowle Mac Cormick, engineer of the 4449, and/or on the 4449.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 11:06 PM on June 30, 2008


I don't get you Train People at all.
It's easy -- we're all nuts and many of us are borderline autistic.

Here are several versions of the classic train number, "Wreck of the Old 97"
Webpage
about this great ballad.

This used to be very common around Altoona, PA and the Horseshoe Curve on the old Pennsylvania Railroad.
Funny -- the Horseshoe Curve (and Gallitzin Tunnel) was the first thing I thought of when reading the OP. Of course, no reference to Gallitzin is complete without a mention of the Tunnel Inn -- the only hotel to list its proximity to the tracks as an amenity.
posted by Opposite George at 1:42 AM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, of course, Quietgal, that steam locomotives are live, animate objects. One of my jobs on the railroad museum was, every third weekend, to show up early at o-dark-thirty and fire up the locomotive. It was a transformational experience, walking into the engine shed, and flicking on the dim lights, to see 185 tons of cold steel, and to know, that through my ministrations and labor, I'd bring her to life over the next several hours- all by myself.

Once the fire was lit and the water starting to boil, it was a veritable feast for the senses in the shed- the odor of oil warming up, wisps of steam escaping here and there, the water running into the tank, the soft whoosh sound of the blower at the front of the locomotive, the muted roar of the fire in the firebox, being able to actually hear the water boiling if you stood in just the right spot on the ground near the front of the firebox. Listening to the familiar creaks and groans from expansion as the boiler heated up, and finally, the flushing sound of the injectors, the thumpthumpthump shhh thump shh thump of the air compressors. Finally, the climax came when I opened the steam valve to the turbine for the generator to power the lights- adding its trill to the cacophony like a piccolo soaring over an orchestral passage.

Yeah, it just a machine. Riii-iight. No one who's ever been alone with a steam locomotive can ever, ever say that.
posted by pjern at 3:27 AM on July 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


Trivia bit- locomotives are driven from the right side, facing forward. The original locomotives shipped over here from Jolly Olde in the 1830's were set up that way, and that tradition has lingered.
Ha, and now Jolly Olde trains are driven from the left, unlike our cars.

Is there some particular phrasing I need to use to search for cab's eye views from US trains? I can't find very many on YouTube
posted by bonaldi at 5:58 AM on July 1, 2008


At work so I could only watch for a few seconds and without audio, but ... mmmm. Thank you for the post. :)
posted by airways at 10:42 AM on July 2, 2008


Flagged as sublime.
posted by not_on_display at 6:31 PM on July 2, 2008


I would like the next MeFiMu challenge to feature train noises. I liked the angle of the train video and also how when the white cars came into frame, the auto-exposure would darken the whole shot. I was also intrigued by the RARE!!!! ten engined train. I hear the train going through here every night at just around bedtime and it's a calming sound.
posted by jessamyn at 6:49 PM on July 2, 2008


I would like the next MeFiMu challenge to feature train noises.

*wags finger*... Jessamyn, you're s'posed to MeFiMail me with that suggestion! ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 PM on July 2, 2008


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