These days, there are millions of songs, podcasts, and audiobooks you can listen to on your morning commute. And given that nearly infinite selection of songs, podcasts, and audiobooks, I choose to listen to trains.
For me and other New Yorkers, the subway is inescapable, one of the few certainties in life. We’re born on the subway, we die on the subway, we sleep on the subway, we fuck on the subway. The only choice we have is what we do while we’re on it (other than the aforementioned dying, sleeping, and fucking). Most commuters try to distract themselves by looking at their phones or listening to music. Personally, I’ve turned to noise-canceling headphones, playing an endless loop of white noise to drown out the cacophony of chitchat, burps, farts, and what have you. Because I’m some sort of freak, my white noise of choice is the sound of subway cars.
Yes, my go-to train music is recordings of other trains going about their business. This means I’m drowning out my commute with the sound of my commute, only quieter.
When I mentioned this to my coworkers recently, the reaction ranged from confusion to something like second-hand embarrassment. “You know a great way to listen to train sounds on the train?” suggested one colleague. “Just do nothing.”
In my defense, I’m not the only one who loves the sweet, sweet sound of wheels on rails. If you look up “train sounds” on YouTube, hundreds (if not thousands) of results spring up, boasting millions of views between them. In the comments below these videos, you’ll find appreciative messages from other folks living in overcrowded, noisy cities—cities whose trains sound pretty darn similar to the ones in the videos.
“In a noisy city like hong kong, i am glad to listen the train travelling in the snowy mountains,” reads one response to the eight-and-a-half-hour opus “All Aboard It Is Sleepy Time,” “make me travel and calm down, thanks.”
Like the hiss of a staticky television or the buzz of a leaky radiator, rumbly wheels provide a kind of industrial drone. It’s as calming to me as the nature sounds that other folks use to to chill out. As neurologist Dr. Christopher Winter explained to HuffPost a few years back, these sorts of sounds are steady, yet unpredictable, leaving our brains captivated but with “nothing there to process.”
Soothing monotony aside, there’s something else at play, both for me and many other train listeners: memory. For a variety of reasons—some financial, some familial—I spent much of my early life moving across different countries, states, and cities, typically by bus or train. And when I struggled with housing as a fully fledged adult, I found myself spending lots of long nights on buses and trains again.
Taking transit late at night was just part of my daily life back then. It’s a risky move for a woman on her own, but it was also, in some ways, a lot more pleasant than my daily commute now. A 3 a.m. subway ride doesn’t have the deafening roar of that same ride six hours later. The only difference between the two is all the people onboard—which is the real reason we hate the subway.
Take away the overcrowding, the delays, and the general incompetence of the people in charge, and you’re left with a train that’s rumbling along as pleasantly as the one from the Sleepy Time video above. When I’m angling myself into another cramped subway car, these recordings are a way to escape into my own little world, one of tranquility, of recollection, of wonderful, reliable trains.