Recording Freight Trains is Serious Business

I took a trip back to my hometown last weekend. I brought my Zoom along, as I normally do when I head to Galesburg. Many times, however, I forget about it and don’t realize I missed the chance to capture something until it’s too late! I was determined to make this trip count. I had my Zoom with me everywhere I went, and ended up with some stuff I’m really proud of.

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Photo by Mack Muir

My favorite recordings from the trip have to be the trains I captured. (Galesburg has no shortage of these!) Now, I’ve recorded plenty of trains in Galesburg, but the results were mostly so-so. Too much traffic noise, too distant, unwanted crossing bells, etc. So this time, I got rid of the variables. I waited until midnight, drove to a quiet area far from any railroad crossings, parked around 20 feet from the tracks, and set up my Zoom outside the window. What could go wrong?

It only took a half hour or so for a couple trains to go by. I had forgotten that there were now “quiet” zones in town, which meant trains would reduce their speed and limit the use of their horns. This was a great chance to isolate the mechanical noise from the horn.

A third train came by. This time even slower. After a couple minutes I realized the train was coming to a stop. Jackpot!

What I didn’t realize was the train was stopping just for me. Apparently, the engineer felt that a car parked next to the tracks with a strange fuzzy thing sticking out the window a little suspicious. I realized this when an unmarked police car came up to investigate. It turns out the officer wasn’t into field recording like I was. I was kindly asked to leave before the train began moving again.

While I had every right to be there recording, I didn’t put up much of a fight. For me it just wasn’t worth the hassle. It’s a shame field recording is not more understood by the general public. It’s hard to get good recordings with out drawing attention to yourself. Usually it’s harmless. I’ve become a bit immune to strange looks from people as I record. Every now and then someone is curious enough to ask what I’m doing (During the middle of recording! AH!) Nevertheless, I’m happy to explain why I’m recording, but most still seem confused as they nod and walk off.

If instead I had a camera in my hand things would likely be different. No one stops to stare at someone taking a picture. In fact, people often go out of their way to not interfere with the picture. I can’t be certain how/if the officers reaction would have differed if I had been taking pictures of trains at night. However, I get the feeling explaining myself would have been easier.

I guess it comes down to the fact that most people don’t know about field recording. It’s something out of the norm that many don’t understand, and may not know how to react to. I obviously don’t agree with the officer that shooed me away, but I can certainly understand where he was coming from. To him I was just a strange man pointing a strange object at trains in the middle of the night; and I don’t think any amount of explaining would have changed that.

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