Sounds of Vermont: the train

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(Host) Time was when railroads were the primary means of travel in Vermont. Then the automobile took over, and the sound of a distant train became mostly a nostalgic memory.

But times have changed again and trains have been making a comeback in the Green Mountains. Along with a resurgence of passenger and freight service, Excursion Trains have become popular.

For our series, Sounds of Vermont, VPR’s Betty Smith takes a ride on the Green Mountain Flyer.

(Sound of a crowd in the Bellows Falls train station.)

(Smith) It’s a busy morning in the Bellows Falls terminal. Dozens of people in the turn-of-the-century red brick building sit on long wooden benches or purchase tickets from Gayle Bellows, who stands behind a window with fancy antique iron grillwork.

(Bellows, ringing up a ticket sale) “All right. There’s your write-up, your receipt, your change and here’s your boarding pass, all set to go! Thank you, enjoy your trip.”

(Sound of train rumbling down the tracks.)

(Smith) Tickets in hand, passengers climb into seven antique passenger cars. In his vintage-style hat and vest, Brian McGregor looks every bit the old time conductor, although these days, they’re called Passenger Representatives.

(McGregor) “Watch your step, take your time. Here you go . Thank you. All aboard!” (Sound of whistle, bells and train rumbles away from the station.)

(Smith) Tom Hasselman is the engineer. The cab of the diesel engine is like a big, metal box with windows on all sides. Hasselmann sits with his back to one side, so he can see the cars behind over one shoulder and the tracks ahead over the other. He has an impressive array of gauges, buttons and levers within easy reach.

(Hasselmann) “This is the brake that controls the train. This is the one that controls the engine, the throttle. This is the reverser for forward and reverse. And lots of little buttons to push.”

(Smith) Soon he’s joined in the cab by conductor Don Beam, clipboard in hand.

(Beam) “Conductor, he basically takes control of the train. And what direction the train is going, he’ll tell the engineer. The engineer is not allowed to move the train until the conductor gives notification.”

(Smith) To Beam, a train whistle has a practical sound.

(Beam) “At 11:30 Amtrack comes through and they’re going south. At 5:30 they’re going north. Anything in between could be New England Central, could be Guilford.”

(Smith) As the train rolls along the banks of the Connecticut and Williams Rivers, Brian McGregor makes his way through the swaying cars.

(McGregor) “Have your tickets ready please.” (Click) “Thank you. You’re welcome.”

(Smith) When the train arrives in Chester, passengers have 20 minutes to stretch and look around the Chester Depot. Sandy Contu helps passengers down the steps. The sound of a train whistle reminds her of the country.

(Contu) “In rural areas some of the railroad crossings do not have the bars that come down and some of them don’t even have lights, so our engineers are very conscientious about blowing the whistle loudly and long to let any motorists or pedestrians – to let them know that our train is coming.”

(Smith) But it seems that for most of the passengers, the sound of a train whistle is pure nostalgia, with just a touch of romance.

(Passengers on the train) “The sound of a train whistle is comforting. It sends my thoughts to other places.”
“Long Freight trains out West. Yeah. Cause you can hear ’em for miles and see ’em go forever.”
“In the summer when there’s thick summer air we hear the train whistles all night.”

(Smith) Conversation turns to train songs.

(Group of passengers) “What would you know besides ‘I Been Working On The Railroad’? What else is there?” (Group starts singing, ‘I Been Working On The Railroad’.)

(Smith) It’s nearly the end of the trip and Brian McGregor stands outside on the small platform at the end of the train, listening to his favorite train sound.

(McGregor) “I love that noise, the clickety-clack. I just love it.”

(Smith) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Betty Smith on the Green Mountain Flyer.

(Host) “Sounds of Vermont” explores everyday sounds and what they mean to us. Review the all the stories in Sounds of Vermont online.

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