Blues in the night: The whistle to end all whistles

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, May 9, 2011

To my way of thinking, the wail of an Amtrak locomotive horn whistling in the distance is as good as it gets. It’s how we should all be beckoned to heaven. Next to an Amtrak whistle, every other locomotive horn emits just an out-of-tune screech. But for years I’ve been frustrated in my desire to learn what musical chord that melodious whistle represents. Thanks to National Train Day, we now know (to learn whether that train will be on display near you, click here).
My friend George Hamlin hustled to Washington Union Station last Saturday to tour the exhibit train marking Amtrak’s 40th anniversary. George has listened patiently to my poetic declarations about the beauty of an Amtrak whistle. So upon his return home he sent the photo reproduced here. Here is the explanatory text next to the display of whistles:
“Motive Power Development Manager Deane Ellsworth ended his search for the ‘Sound of Amtrak’ with what became the K5LA. On his vacation, Ellsworth went to Vancouver, B.C., to meet with Robert E. Swanson, the world’s inventor of the chime-tone locomotive air horn. Ellsworth suggested that Swanson retune the Airchime K5H to sound a strident major chord, and the K5LA was the result. The K5LA has been the horn of choice for Amtrak locomotives since it was first installed on the second order of F40PH locomotives in 1977. Horn donated by Nathan-Airchime Inc.”
What is that major chord? The musical term is B Major 6. So when your family sits down for dinner tonight, excuse yourself to go to the piano and serenade them with these notes: D# (sharp), F#, G#, B, and D#. That’s it, the Sound of Amtrak. Diana Krall never sounded as seductive. — Fred W. Frailey

Tags: Amtrak
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