top of page

The Ears have it.

Different railway sounds and their use in museums. . . . . . . .

English Electric Type 4 1Co-Co1 D255 is seen approaching Dunchurch with the diverted 10 13am Birmingham New Street to Euston express service.

Picture: Warwickshire railways online

In a previous post I explained some of the smells associated with railways, a subject which produced plenty of nostalgic reflections on what various smells meant to each of us. There is certainly no shortage of ‘smell memorabilia’ out there! This post takes a different tack, though, with another of our senses – hearing.

Mentioning sounds often produces recollections of the sounds of steam locomotives – the characteristic ‘chuffing’ sound, blowing off steam, clanking coupling rods and, of course, the very sound of a train passing over jointed rail. Of course, there’s a whole industry producing recordings of particular trains on particular routes. When a locomotive passes, particularly a steam locomotive, there are as many sound recorders as cameras on the platform. But recording oral histories also produced some more unusual ones, equally distinctive and evocative.

I once asked my father what he thought was the distinctive sound of the town where I/we were born. A tough question, perhaps, but he came back quickly with the sound of coal wagons being loose shunted in colliery yards, especially at night. It’s a memory shared by many, an evocative world of bangs and crashes, metal on metal.

I also put the question to Dennis, a fireman on BR 9Fs working the old GCR route through the East Midlands. He recalled occasions where a fully loaded train had to stop quickly at signals after a fast run. When the locomotive stopped, before the inevitable ‘blowing off’, he recalled hearing the sound of groaning metal easing back into place, mechanical lubricators getting life saving oil into critical joints. John and George were volunteers on the night shift at the Loughborough shed of the Great Central (Heritage) Railway. I asked why the night shift appealed so much. It was the sound of locomotives with a warming fire, or being lit up ready for service – ‘you know, the sound of metal clicking as it expands or contracts, that gentle swishing sound of low pressure steam easing through cylinder cocks, burbling water as boilers heated up…… The smaller locomotives were best because they heated up and cooled down quicker.’ Another George referred to one of his charges as ‘the singing Jinty’ precisely because it was small and easily warmed.

In my adolescent days of trainspotting we used to sit in the grass at the top of a cutting and listen to the bell sounds from the nearby signal box. We learnt the codes and knew what to expect and when. Today, I still have that slightly tingling feeling when I hear ‘the bells’ in a box.

Sound is an evocative thing for those who can hear well. Many of us know the sound of particular classes of locomotive - the whistling of English Electric diesel Type 4’s, for example. And come to that, the various types of whistle. You might think a chime whistle is distinctively a Gresley A4 Pacific but that’s a three chime sound, you see, whereas there are multiple chimes you could use………

One day I was in a meeting with a director of a large company based in Leeds. His office was high up looking over parts of Leeds railway station. You could see the main buildings but not the approach lines from the east. We were poring over large papers spread on his table when we both stopped suddenly. We looked at each other as the soft sound of a steam locomotive exhaust wafted across the city. From the window we could see nothing, not even a wisp of steam. But we knew what it was.

‘Gresley A4?’ he said, and I nodded.

Wandering around the NRM I occasionally catch the sound coming from some of the exhibits, mainly pieces of film available to view. Mostly these are ‘talking heads’ but there are also the sounds of trains moving about, signal levers being pulled, even that whipping sound of moving signal wires at the trackside.

Most of all, though, it’s that strange sound that is locked into memory, the sound of the train.


John Swanwick

Read about Friends contributions to the National Railway Museum here

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page