Listen up: A locomotive whistle could save your life

You might think a train whistle is a loud and annoying sound—but it might just save your life.

“A locomotive whistle is an important safety device that serves as the last warning that a train is coming along the track. It alerts motorists and pedestrians to the presence of an approaching train and warns trespassers away from the rail right-of-way,” explains Cynthia Lulham, the project manager for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ and Railway Association of Canada’s Proximity Initiative. “People think they’re going to hear trains. But you can be standing a few feet from the train and not hear it, because sound travels in strange ways.”

When to sound a whistle—and for how long—is determined by a strict set of federal regulations. Under the Canadian Rail Operating Rules, train crews must sound whistles in a specific sequence at all public rail crossings.

“The last long whistle is sounded until the crossing is fully occupied by the train, so the train is going through as it’s still sounding,” explains Lulham. “The rules apply 24/7 and the whistle must be sounded even if the crossing is equipped with flashing lights, bells and gates.”

Although train whistles save lives, they can still be a source of complaints. Transport Canada has a detailed procedure for communities seeking “whistle cessation”, although it depends on the specific crossing in question. But Lulham warns banning train whistles is not always the best solution.

“One of the things municipalities can do, as they’re developing, is to amalgamate crossings and remove as many level crossings as they can for safety purposes. That, in itself, would reduce whistling,” says Lulham. “The best idea is not to have level crossings in the first place and to use existing grade separated crossings.”