Living on the Tracks

If you’ve ever taken the train from New York City to Montreal you’ve passed a small cluster of houses midway between Rhinecliff and Hudson stations.  No one living there actually likes being on the tracks, yet no one would leave because of them.  Of course, having the Hudson River on the other side of the tracks does help.

Twice an hour most of the day, a train will go by, heralded by two long, one short, one long blasts of an air horn operated by a pushbutton or floor pedal.  The horn is hard to handle if you aren’t feeling well or have a headache, but otherwise, just a small interruption in a conversation.   Most residents report that they really don’t hear it most of the time.

Legislation passed in 1994 mandating soundings at public grade crossings.  There is a crossing to a small boat landing and picnic area across the tracks from this hamlet and hence the horn.  There is a crossing gate, the view both north and south is clear so that you can see the headlight of the train approaching, and there are only a handful of people who cross those tracks by car or foot every day, and most of them are regulars very aware of the danger.  It seems to me highly probable that the tracks are more dangerous up or down the track where people fish, walk their dogs, swim, or just seek privacy, and there is no gate for warning.  But there are no horns up and down the tracks.

Several years ago a group of residents of the hamlet initiated a movement to have the horn silenced — which has been done in numerous communities following a process initiated by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2005.  This FRA regulation states that certain intersections do not necessitate the sounding of horns.  Residents who lived inland from the trains did not agree – the sound of train whistles in the distance has a charm not appreciated by those who live less than 500 feet from the train.  The town voted to keep the whistle.

Nighttime brings a few freight trains, and they rumble along with no lights.  They do shake the house a little, but that can be comforting and after a bit of time they don’t interrupt sleep.  A newcomer to the area or an overnight guest might be rudely jolted from a dream.  It is important not to curse, and not to worry about falling back to sleep, and not to wait for the next one to come by.

The train has become a big part of both my real and fantasy life.  I imagine living in a model train landscape, in one of the little houses perched on a hill. At one end of the table are farms, at the other a few factories, in the middle a small town with a post office, school, and houses of all sizes and shapes. A little child comes and turns on the train and makes sure everything is in place and working. The trains go round and round.  I imagine walking down the steps of my house to the tracks and flagging down the train to go to go for a coffee up in Hudson. I think about the lonely late night passenger train and how it passes by at 12:37 even if there are no passengers on board.  I guess what is in those freight cars. It’s a great escape during those moments when the real world gets too scary, or it’s a picture book in process.

I fantasize about the engineer, pulling that cord, with his head looking out the window, and the steam pouring out of the whistle.  I make up a story — perhaps the short happy toot is a signal to a friend who lives in town, or a thank you to the couple that used to moon the trains from their hot tub.  Perhaps the longer shrill blasts of reality are a retaliatory response to a hamlet that sought to silence it.

Hurricane Irene and the rising of the river silenced the trains for a few days last year.  It re-confirmed the serenity of living close to and in touch with the Hudson.  Horn be damned.  I will enjoy what I have without complaining about the noise or worrying about what a high speed train corridor might mean.

Thank you to all who have posted information on trains and whistles on-line.  I hope I have used your sites in a way that pleases you.