Ask Not for Whom the Whistle Blows … Perhaps It Blows for Thee.
When you take a train ride – whether one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains or one of the short haul routes – you soon become aware of the whistle. On many routes, it seems as though it’s blown constantly. I had taken several train rides before I noticed that the engineer was using different whistle patterns. I asked a conductor who was passing through the car what they meant and he was happy to tell me.
Long, long, short, long. This is the one you’ll here most often. It’s used when the train approaches a grade crossing and is blown when the locomotive passes a whistle post. (I’ve asked several engineers and many conductors about this particular whistle pattern. While the long-long-short-long is specifically included in the engineer’s manual, no one has been able to tell me about its origin. The consensus seems to be “railroad tradition.”)
Short, short. The train is about to move forward. You’ll here this just before the train gets underway after stopping at a station.
Short, short, short. The train is about to back up.
Long. This means the engineer is going to set – meaning to test – the brakes. This is done when the train is stopped and with one of the conductors outside to visually inspect the brakes once they’re applied.
One long blast. You’ll hear this at a station where the train has been stopped for several minutes and passengers are wandering around on the platform having a smoke or getting some fresh air. It means “Get back on board immediately.” Do it! They aren’t kidding. Anyone who has wandered into the station looking for a newspaper stands a good chance of being left behind. Trust me: it happens a lot.
By the way, “whistle” – both as a verb and as a noun – is still used, even though the term comes from the days of steam locomotives. Today, technically, it’s an air horn.