Train Whistle Codes

A couple of nights ago, I couldn’t sleep.  There’s a lot going on in my life right now.  I went to bed tense (which I usually don’t) and woke up around 2:00 a.m.  And then I made THE mistake—I said to myself, “You gotta go back to sleep!”  Saying that is death to a good night’s sleep.  Kind of like saying, “Don’t watch those two cars wreck.”  You just have to watch!

I was thinking about all sorts of things and flipping from one side to the other for hours.  Someone once told me that’s called “God’s rotisserie.”


There is a railroad crossing approximately one mile from our home.  I’ve always enjoyed hearing the train whistles as they approach it.  Reminds me of nights when I was growing up.

Back then; we didn’t have air conditioning in our home.  My bedroom had those tall windows with screens on them that you could crank-roll out.  We’d open them at night (actually they were open all the time) and turned on the attic fan (remember those?)  And the cool breeze would blow over me in bed.  Looking back, I can’t believe that we slept so well at night when it would be 90° outside.  I have a hard time sleeping now when it gets up to 73°.  (We’ve become real wimps!)  It was really a wonderful feeling back then. 

During those nights back in the day, I heard two things that for some reason brought me comfort—the cooing sound of a dove, and the sound of a train whistle off in the distance.  The tracks were about a mile or two away from the home that I grew up in.  I’d be all snuggled in bed and hear them.  These two sounds still make me feel secure and cozy.  Might sound weird, but this was one of the fond memories of my youth.

I heard the train whistles about seven or eight times last night over a four-hour span.  They didn’t make me feel cuddly at all.  I wanted to sleep!  I didn’t know they ran so much at night.  Usually I’m sleeping and don’t hear them.  Anyway, after a while I noticed that there was a pattern that I’d never noticed before.  Funny what you can notice when you’re still and silent.  I looked it up this morning on Wikipedia wondering if there really are train-whistle codes.

The one I heard last night was two long whistles, followed by a short blast, followed by a long whistle.  This is what it looked like on Wiki ( – – o – ).  What Wikipedia told me was that the “Train is approaching public grade crossings(s).  This is known as Rule 14L in almost all railroad operating rules.”

I found that there are many whistle codes and they all mean something different to the educated listener.  They warn of possible approaching danger.  To this point in my life, I’ve only heard the whistles.  I’ll listen a little more intently from now on.

Thinking of this, don’t we as humans also have a sophisticated set of codes like this when we communicate?  When you hear that certain “tone” in another person’s voice when they’re getting angry?  When you hear the irritated “sigh” from the person in line behind you at the Post Office who’s waiting for you to finish your transaction?  When someone blows his or her horn a little too long when you don’t immediately take off when the light turns green?  Or in your own voice when you’re frustrated?

Great leaders are great communicators.  That’s a large part of what leadership is about.  And listening is a large part of communication.

As M. Scott Peck said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”  That’s so true, and it takes a lot of practice.

A great conversationalist learns to hear these codes and, more importantly, to choose the appropriate response to these codes.  According to one survey, 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tonality, and only 7% of what we communicate are the actual words that we say.  These sounds and the sights matter.

So watch out for the “whistles” of the people around you today!  Maybe there’s something you really need to “hear” today.  Really hear!  Or, maybe there’s some approaching risk or danger that, with a little focused awareness, you may wish to avoid along the way.

Enter Your Mail Address

Leave a Reply