For me, one captivating aspect of railroading is sound. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Barking exhaust, thumping wheels, squealing flanges, rail contracting and expanding, horns, bells, and whistles. Oh my! Back in April I experienced one of the best sound shows I’ve heard in some time but documenting without a recording is not easy. Here’s my attempt to describe what I heard.
First, let me set the scene for you. I’m on a desolate gravel road. Since I left the pavement 20 minutes ago I passed a ranch a ranch which at 7:20PM appears abandoned. I stopped a few hundred feet short of a grade crossing guarded by a pair of cross bucks. Getting out of my vehicle I hear the ducks in a nearby pond chasing one another about (it is spring time!).
To my east (railroad south) I can see the track as it descends through a valley for about 2 miles on its gradual descent to Surprise Creek. To my west (railroad north) the track is pretty much straight and is on a steady .6% climb to a summit near Geyser. Nothing steep mind you but the train headed my way is 2X2 123 car coal train which will definitely need all 8 notches of throttle on this hill. Oh, yes, there are crickets too.
At 7:20PM in April the sun is about to set. The unseasonable warmth of the day is gone and I’m already feeling the coolness creep in. There really isn’t any wind, highly unusual for this part of Montana. East of me 4 miles the Surprise Creek tunnel and a bench provide a physical and sound barrier. I won’t hear the train until it exists the tunnel. I sit for the next 15 minutes in the relative silence.
Pretty soon I hear a distant rumble. My coal train has reached the bottom of the Surprise Creek valley and has started the climb toward Geyser. For the next 6 minutes the lead GEs begin overpowering the sounds I hear. First the grass rustling disappears then the ducks. As the train appears around the corner I begin to hear the whine of AC traction motors under the steady thump of FDL prime mover exhaust. For the next few minutes exhaust sounds overwhelms me as the lead locomotives pass. Next comes 123 cars laden which Powder River Basin coal. Each one creaks and groans as is passes over the crossing. Occasionally flat spots pass…thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk…at a pace equal to the 20 mph the train is making.
2 minutes later two GE ACs on the rear roar by. Soon the exhaust sound begins to fade replaced by the high pitch of of AC traction motor whine. For a few minutes I stand there soaking it in. The train sound continues to fade but the drama of it is still fresh in my head so the sounds I pick out still remind me of what I just heard. Slowly the relative quiet returns to my little spot by the tracks.
As I pack up my camera gear and walk back to my vehicle it strikes me how impressive that particular train passage was. I’ve heard thousands of trains pass but somehow the atmosphere, train, and mental state all lined up to really leave an impression on me. I should have pulled my sound recorder out.