In between the barking of dogs, the wailing of car alarms and the buzzing of helicopters, Echo Park is momentarily quiet enough to allow a harmonica-like hum to emerge from the background. It’s a train horn. The nearest train tracks from my home run along the Los Angeles River to the yards near Union Station — more than two miles away. So, I’m always surprised that a distant horn blast can rise beyond roaring freeways and steep hills to reach me in my backyard or, as you can hear on the sound clip at the bottom of this post, during a recent morning walk near Elysian Park.
A brief exploration into the world of train horns revealed a few things. The horns are regulated by federal law, can be influenced by the weather and are celebrated by a sub culture of train foamers that refer to themselves as the “horn community.” You can even buy train horns but please don’t share this info with the teenage neighbor who spends all of Saturday afternoon polishing the rims on his pick-up.
I also discovered that I was far from alone in my wonder of the neighborhood train horns — and in awkward attempts to duplicate their sound. “It sounds like ‘oooh, oooh, oooh'” said my friend Katrina, who can hear horns from her hilltop home in Highland Park.
At the bottom of Mount Washington overlooking the former Taylor Yards, Cameron Slocum said the sound of a blaring train horn can be “very grating but there is a charm to it … It’s a throw back to a different era. Who gets to hear trains? I’d miss it if it was gone.”
At the suggestion of a train foamer and friend, I headed for the tracks and yards of Lincoln Heights to see the source of those horns. On the Buena Vista Bridge, which carries North Broadway across the Los Angeles River, you can see and hear all the trains that travel across the Eastside: Amtrak, the Gold Line, Metrolink and the Union Pacific*.
A Gold Line trolley rolled north and blew a honk that sounded like Felix Unger clearing his sinuses. Well, that’s certainly not what I hear back in Echo Park. Then, from the other of side of the span, came a rich baritone blast from a southbound Union Pacific* freight train that sent a vibration through the bridge. This was more like it.
Hector Garcia and Ramiro Gonzales, who walked across the bridge on their way home to Lincoln Heights, said the train horns are part of life here.
“It’s like gunshots; it’s like helicopters – you hear them every day,” said Gonzales. “It’s home.”
* Earlier versions of this story described the train line incorrectly as the Santa Fe.
Click on the player below to the hear the train horn and toots I heard from Sargent Place near Scott Avenue.