How to Hear a Train Coming

Remember those old westerns where an Indian guide would put his ear to a train track and forecast whether a train was coming or not?

How’d he do that? Is it really possible to listen for a train coming and if so, how does it work? How far away can you hear a train coming?

According to the Association of American Railroads, the tale is true. An approaching train can be detected by as much as a mile away – provided that no other force is acting on the tracks.

man with ear on train trackHowever.. those wise, old Indians weren’t necessarily “listening” for the oncoming train. It’s more likely that you would “feel” the vibration of an oncoming train before you would ever hear it. So why did they bother to use their ears at all?

Well, it’s likely that Hollywood added a bit of artistic creativity – which caught on and was used in several films. After all.. cars don’t usually blow up after catching on fire either. And being a “good guy” gives no special gift in dodging bullets – but the big screen always tells a different story.

Hollywood culture – go figure.

Then again, maybe the Indian needed to appear more useful to the cowboy. Predicting an oncoming train isn’t nearly so impressive when merely touching the tracks. Giving the appearance of listening would allow our red-skin friend to still feel the vibration – but look way cooler.

A mystical engine who hunts well, always carries a peace-pipe and has seemingly other-worldly gifts? Sounds like a pretty good companion to have in the Old West.

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