If you’re sitting on your porch on a balmy Georgia night, the noise, at some point, is almost inevitable.
First it may start as a change in the breeze, as if something were slicing through the air particles and sending them scattering. Then it builds until it becomes a low rumble. Then, the horn starts.
Train sirens carry across much of the Georgia landscape, and many old roads — now bypassed by wider state highways — still follow the lines of the tracks. Cities such as Flowery Branch, Oakwood and Lula can’t ignore the importance of the train even in today’s economy, with sets of tracks and rumbling locomotives continuing to take over downtown a few times a day delivering feed, soybeans and even car parts.
In Lula, for example, it can seem like one train comes right after another. Sometimes one will stop, creating a wall between the downtown businesses and the sprawling neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks.
Whenever the train rolled through Lula, the windows in Iris Fry’s home used to shake.
Her green frame home, built in 1886, sits just a couple blocks from the railroad tracks that cut through the heart of downtown Lula. It’s the house where her sister was born and where she was raised. But in recent years — whether it’s the house or the tracks that have settled — the
rattling has stopped.
"Used to be when any of them came through, it’d shake the house. But now it don’t," she said as she walked her dog on a recent spring-like day.
But then again, the lifelong Lula resident has heard the trains for so long, she almost doesn’t notice when they come through anymore.
"I can hear it in my mind," she said. "It’s meant a lot to us around here. It’s always been here."
Although it seems, in Lula anyway, the longer you live there the more you accept the rumbling of the train as a part of life. Patsy Helton, a Lula resident for the past 15 years, noted that she still hears the train as it chugs through town during the day.
At night, it helps put her to sleep.
"It’s like an old movie, I guess," she said of the town as she looked out toward the tracks from her front porch, about a block from the tracks. "I’m about used to it. At night it’s not so bad because you’re going to sleep. But in the day, sometimes it’s loud."
Amber Hancock, 17, hasn’t quite accepted the trains yet.
"They’re really annoying," she said while walking along the tracks with a few friends. "I work late and I come home at 3 o’clock in the morning and that’s all I can hear."
If a neighborhood or a community feels plagued by nonstop horns — or, even particularly loud horns — it can apply to be designated a "quiet zone" through the Federal railroad Administration, according to Karina Romero, a media relations representative with Amtrak.
She said an engineer will blow a horn at every crossing, unless the Railroad Administration designates an area as a quiet zone.
"A local community can apply to be a quiet zone and the FRA can take a look at it," she said, noting that the zone would apply to both passenger and freight trains. "The FRA just tells us and we follow the guidelines."
But just as much as the train tracks wind through area towns, they also cut through vast stretches of countryside.
And while sometimes a train may come across a few houses dotting that countryside, engineer Chris Taylor said most times they are more likely to see wildlife than people on long stretches of track.
"Usually it’s in the middle of nowhere," said Taylor, who has been working for Norfolk-Southern for 20 years. He drives the route between Atlanta and Greenville, S.C. and delivers products like soybeans to Cargill and other plants in Gainesville.
"There’s not much around where the train tracks are," he said. "We see a lot of wildlife."
Wild hogs, turkeys and lots of deer roam near the tracks, he said. And unfortunately, a lot of the wildlife doesn’t know to get off the tracks in time for the train.
Thankfully, though, he hasn’t had to witness a person killed on the tracks. Norfolk-Southern has one of the best safety records, he said, but still, every so often he sees someone walking alongside the tracks or a car that tries to beat a crossing gate as it comes down, and he shudders.
"We cannot stop," he said. "It’s impossible to stop these things in a timely fashion."
Last year, there were 1,880 rail crossing collisions in the United States, with 95 happening in Georgia, according to Operation Lifesaver, an organization that promotes rail-crossing safety. Georgia is No. 5 on the list of the states with the most collisions, and ranks 15th on the list of states with the most rail-crossing fatalities, with six last year.
Both Romero, with Amtrak, and Taylor said engineering jobs aren’t the type people from other industries just apply for. Unlike being a truck driver, where you get a license, engineers get experience after years doing other railroad jobs. At Norfolk-Southern, everyone gets cross-trained in all positions, so an engineer also knows the job of the brakeman, for example.
Although Taylor points out he didn’t necessarily get into the business because of a love of trains. He was clearing the table after a poker game with some friends, he said, and noticed one man’s paycheck stub.
It was for $2,000 more than what he was making, in the same two-week period. And that was in the 1980s.
Today, he says, he’s happy with his Sunday-through-Thursday shift, the company’s benefits and a steady paycheck. Local companies keep up the demand for trains, he said, and it’s in general an economical way to move freight.
Even though he shakes his head when asked about any romantic association he might have with locomotives.
"I don’t understand the fascination with trains."
But Fry fondly recalls picking up the train in Lula and riding it with her parents to Atlanta. When it snowed waist-high, the train still chugged through her little town.
"I remember the conductor coming by, saying, ‘Tickets, please," she said. "You can see so many beautiful things on these rails. Such beautiful country."