Rhythm of the rails


Chit-chat pause chit-chat,
Chit-chat pause chit-chat.
Over the fish-plate,
The wheels hit the gap.
Chit-chat pause chit-chat,
Chit-chat pause chit-chat.
In the cars they all
Talked loud in mono
Chit-chat pause chit-chat
Chit-chat pause chit-chat
Syllables and tone
Hardly heard above
Chit-chat pause chit-chat,
Chit-chat pause chit-chat.
Now they can whisper,
The rails no longer
Chit-chat pause chit-chat,
Chit-chat pause chit-chat.
Welded steel it hums
To the points and then
Chit-chat pause chit-chat
Chit-chat pause chit-chat
Ever so briefly
The old beat returns:
Chit-chat pause chit-chat,
Chit-chat pause chit-chat.
–Noel Bushnell, 2016

Everybody has had the sensation, I suppose, of suddenly realising that something is missing, that there is a difference in your surroundings and that difference is not a presence but an  absence and whatever has disappeared may have been gone for some considerable time. It’s not like waking from a dream, all hot and bothered in a return to reality; it’s more like taking something for granted until at some moment it is borne in upon you that you are mistaken in your assumptions.

I can’t remember exactly when this thought started but it was one day more than a year ago sitting in a train, a vintage train – century old carriages and a steam locomotive pounding away up front. I was travelling from Cairns to Brisbane, as I’ve recounted before, on Queensland Rail’s 150th anniversary special. It was on the first day, somewhere north of Townsville. I was lolling back in my seat in the second last car of the nine-car train, half asleep in tropical heat only a little diminished by the blast of soot-filled air through the open windows. I was enjoying myself, hot and dirty, rocking to the rhythm of the rails in a glow of nostalgia for journeys long ago, before the roar of diesels, the whirr of electrics and . . .

And before rails that hummed. These hummed!

Once upon a time, rails didn’t hum. They sent out a steady drum beat as wheels on stiff steel springs crashed down on the regular gaps between short-length rails held together, end-to-end, by steel bars called fishplates. Variations in the road jolted the tone up and down, and points fired rimshots and sudden flourishes into the backing track. The sound pervaded your very being, and even when you stopped the beat went on.

But now on that summer’s day in north Queensland, if I closed my eyes and just listened, I could have been anywhere on a modern electric train.

The rails hummed.

And, I realised, they had been humming for a very long time. There was a hole in my consciousness where the rhythm of the rails had been and I hadn’t noticed.

But I kept the thought to myself – a little secret between me and the train. It was precious to me and later that year as I travelled the trains of Europe I listened for a hint of the old beat above the hum of the high-speed tracks. Nothing, of course.

So what does it matter?

A few weeks ago, I was reading a review of an exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Picture. The artist, Daniel Crooks, has created a film called Phantom Ride, which appears to be a single tracking shot of a forward-facing journey along a long stretch of disused or obsolete rural rail lines. There is no train, just the rails heading into the distance.

The reviewer, Christopher Allen, described his reaction: “The first impression was of the dreamlike smoothness with which we seem to glide forward – a virtual or ideal version of the motion of a train . . .”

And then he said: “. . . without the regular bumping of a real one, or its corresponding and characteristically rhythmical clickety-clack sound.”

He hasn’t noticed either. Trains don’t do that any more.

But you see, the notion that trains go clickety-clack is buried in the human psyche – mysteriously, because how many of us are left who have heard such a thing? It’s like everyone, old or young, recognising that the road sign of a silhouette of a steam engine billowing smoke indicates an unattended railway level crossing. Kids of all ages go once on Puffing Billy and that is forever the sound of a train. The whirr of the electric suburban train they use every day is not. Nor is the whoosh and zip of Shinkansen, or the TGV or Eurostar. Nor even the whine of the diesel unit trains, like the pathetic old XPT of New South Wales.

Don’t believe me? Click on Discovery Channel’s series on Australian trains and listen. The absence of sound in the films is filled in by a drum track to create what the producer thinks a train sounds like – what a train should sound like. The roar and the rumble of the giant freight trains in the program are distinctive all right. But if the producer had really listened he or she would have realised they don’t beat out that old time rock and roll, the rhythm of the rails.

British railway writer Simon Bradley says in his terrific new book, The Railways: “Everyone knows the noise a moving train is supposed to make: a sort of diddly-dum rhythm, four beats close together, repeated over and over. Everyone knows it: and yet the music of wheels on rail joints is unusual now.”

Ah, I’m glad it’s not just me. The change is because continuous welded rail has gradually replaced old fishplate-joined rail over several decades. “To the passenger in transit, welding points are undetectable,” says Bailey. “The familiar four beats – two close together, a slightly longer gap, then another two closely spaced – are made by the wheels of the twin-axled bogies at the end of each carriage as they cross joint after joint.” Quite . . . so that when the last of the old track disappeared no one noticed.

But that’s not all: “The fourfold beat is really a twentieth century sound, and not the usual rhythm the Victorians knew. Most carriages then had four or six wheels, on axles that were more widely spaced.”

I know what Bailey means. I grew up beside a railway line on which passed many coal trains with four-wheeled hopper wagons, and goods trains, too, still with four-wheelers – clicking over the fishplated rail joints.

After reading that, I had two old railway rhythms in my head. Not quite the Bailey formula, mind, because he forgot something: in a train each set of wheels comes before and is immediately followed by another set. So that for a train of four-wheeled wagons the beat over the joints would be: click, pause (the length of the wagon), click-(the coupling) click, pause, click-click, pause, click-click . . . and so on. Given, however, that four-wheeled wagons were quite short, the pauses would have been barely noticeable. But for a train of long cars on twin-axled bogies, the pause cannot be denied, so the beat goes: click-clack, pause, click-clack, click-clack, pause, click-clack . . . or, indeed, chit-chat, pause, chit-chat, chit-chat . . . and so on.

Again, what does any of this matter? Welded rail, along with better roadbeds, roller bearings and softer springs, makes for better trains. So what if the rails hum? Who would wish for the old familiar four beats to the bar?

Well, I thought, not everything can be reduced to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. Poets, what about poets? There is a vast body of railway literature and poets have given full voice to the culture of a technology that conquered time and space, that created and nurtured vast new industries and that changed forever the way people lived. Surely poets had responded to the rhythm of the rails and, now that they merely hummed, the loss would be a matter of some regret.

The thing was I couldn’t remember any poem that actually picked up even the simple clickety-clack sound that Christopher Allen thought he remembered. I looked in my  collection of railway poems. No, not really.

Of course there was the famous Robert Louis Stevenson opus, From a Railway Carriage, that begins “Faster than fairies, faster than witches,/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches” and ends “And here is a mill and there is a river: each a glimpse and gone forever.” This an impression of rushing speed and the fleeting nature of rail travel even at the modest pace of Stevenson’s day. And yes the rhythm is that of the trains I remember. But it’s not the beat of the wheels.

Emily Dickinson’s “I like to see it lap the Miles –/And lick the Valleys up – “caught the rhythm but not the sound. And so it went, through my anthologies and on the internet – lots of wonderful poems exploring the range of human experience on the rails, near the rails and distant-but-connected from the rails. But even so dedicated a train poet as Sir John Betjeman had other things on his mind besides the drumming sound of his favourite form of mobility.

I went and listened to possibly the most famous train song, Chattanooga Choo Choo, as played by the Glenn Miller orchestra. It’s a great impression of a train, a passenger train in the glory days – bells and whistles and steam engine on the boil – but the driving drumbeat is that old familiar clickety-clack. I don’t know, I’m no musician, but I really wanted to hear the sound of twin-axled bogies expressed in music and poetry as it really was. Maybe I’m asking too much – more likely I’ve just not searched widely enough. I’m no scholar, either.

And this is why it matters.

Trains and railways have been used as a metaphor for the journey of life almost from the first day they were offered for public transport. The rhythm of the rails is fundamental to the backing track of humanity growing up, away from the simple rhythms of the sun and moon and the seasons, the land and the tread of boots and the gallop of hoof-beats. I suppose the collective subconscious has equated the rhythm of the rails with the beating of our hearts.

I don’t know about yours but my heart doesn’t hum.



6 thoughts on “Rhythm of the rails

  1. This is a beautifully written piece of writing. I love how you use the metaphor of the train and its hum to discuss greater issues.



    • Many thanks. There’s more to be said about the poetry of trains. The danger is slipping into nostalgia. Modern passenger trains and rail travel have broken with the past and writers are challenged by their speed and their insulation from the world outside their aircraft-like shells.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If I were young, I would probably answer “yes” without qualification. But now I think we should seek continuity. It’s obvious you can’t live in the past and it’s folly to try — but you can’t dismiss it either. Train metaphors will go on. Just today I opened my newspaper to find the headline “Fears of derailments as leaders battle to stay on track” in all its clichéd glory. It’s how the writers adapt to the new that is interesting. How does the hum of wheels on steel at high speed relate to life today?


  2. It was Tex Benneke from my memory who sang of the cat that chewed your new shoes. Equally appealing was the 1960’s observation of Flanders and Swan: “If god had meant us to fly he would never have given us the railways.”
    Even the hum of steel on steel will likely be denied us before very long. We await the non-contact sport of support by magnetic levitation.
    Battery technological advance will soon give us ubiquitous electric cars; I say install V8 sound tracks in cars and put in train for trains a reassuring ‘clicketty clack track’ approach..
    I do not dispute your broader philosophical musings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Un-itched in the Gulf | The Traveller

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