Steam: Sounds of a short light-hearted journey on a local Steam Locomotive.

Field Recording, Music, Sound


Steam-Locomotive 'Merlin' 4

Last weekend was the 150th year anniversary of trains running the Belfast to Bangor train line in Northern Ireland.  To mark the occasion the Railway Preservation of Ireland organised a Steam locomotive to travel the Belfast to Bangor train route which was open to the general public to experience a blast from the past.

The Belfast and County Down railway was a railway company established in Ireland in 1846.  The first train line in operation was Belfast to Holywood and opened to the public in 1846.  The line was further extended to Bangor and opened for business in 1865.  The newly open train line meant people could communte to and from Belfast quite easily.   This also attracted many people and businessmen to the popular seaside resort and expanded the town’s population.

Bangor Train station in the 1950s.

Bangor Train station in the 1950s.

Today these railways are run by the operator NIR (Northern Ireland Railways) which have been operating since the late 1960s.  Today people traveling the Belfast to Bangor train line ride a multiple unit train known as the class 3000 or class 4000 which are trains powered by diesel engines.  My brother-in-law drives one of these trains.

Past & Present trains...

Past & present trains…

Gone are the days when the Steam Locomotive was a familiar site on the Irish railway but occasionally they are brought back to life for a past reminder and supply a bit of light-hearted entertainment for train enthusiasts, families and people of all ages.

Last weekend i traveled the short familiar 12 mile journey from Bangor to Belfast on a steam train known as ‘Merlin‘. This particular steam locomotive had a similar look to fictional steam train ‘Thomas the tank Engine‘. This steam Locomotive was named after the bird of prey ‘Merlin‘ which is a species of falcon.  Merlin is the last remaining full sized compound locomotive at work anywhere in the British Isle and is long term loan from the Ulster Folk and Transport museum which is situated at Cultra, County Down.

Leaving Bangor

What has all this got to do with Sound?

My main objective for this short journey was was to capture a field recording of one of these old locomotives that dominated the Irish railway transport until the middle of the 20th century.

This is not the first time musicians, composers, or artists have used railway study for inspiration or a form of composition.  In fact throughout time trains have had a musical influence on Pop, Electronic, Folk, Jazz and bluegrass Music.

Steam-Locomotive 'Merlin' 1

The earliest pieces of ‘musique concrète‘ featured railway sounds composed by Pierre Schaeffer.  ‘Etude aux chemins de far‘ is an audio mash-up of steam engines, whistles and various railway sounds.  This piece was composed and broadcasted in 1948.  The track featured on ‘Cinq etudes de bruits‘ (Five studies of noise) which is a collection of musical compositions by the french composer.  If you want to have a listen to ‘Cinq etudes de bruits‘ by Pierre Schaffer click on the video below:

Railway transport has also had an influence on electronic music especially German electronic band Kraftwerk who released their album and single ‘Trans-Europe Express‘ in 1977.

The song is about the former international railway service in Europe known as the Trans europ express (TEE).  At it’s height the TEE comprised of 45 trains and connected 130 different cities in Europe.

Listen to the tempo, rhythm and beat of this song and you will quite easily spot the influence the TEE had on the german electronic band.  If you want to listen to ‘Trans-Europe Express‘ click on the video below:

The classic fiddle song ‘Orange Blossom Special‘ is a train imitation piece of music.  It is also been referred to as the fiddle‘s player national anthem.  Played at a breakneck tempo, the instruments evoke train wheels and whistles giving the listener a train like journey feel.  This song was written by Ervin T. Rouse and is about the deluxe passenger train named ‘Orange Blossom Special‘.

Orange Blossom spring has been covered by many musicians including Johnny Cash who was a fan of trains and sung about them quite often in his music.  Click on the video below to a Johnny Cash live version of ‘Orange Blossom Special‘ featuring Roy Clarke

Have you ever watched the video for Star Guitar by the electronic duo Chemical Brothers? The video is directed by Michel Gondry and contains continuous footage shot from the window of a train passing through towns and countryside.  The elements in the video appear in time with elements of the track.  The footage was shot in France, the train ride between Nîmes and Valence.  The song takes a guitar sample from David Bowie‘s ‘Starman‘ hence the name of the song is called ‘Star Guitar‘.  Cheers DG for this recommendation,  Click on the video below:

For my Field recording i wanted to capture the various sounds from a steam locomotive. I planned to record these sounds from different angles and platforms giving the listener a bit of variation. I also wanted to loop one or two of these sounds to demonstrate the possibility of creating rhythm. I will point out on the audio waveform where i have digitally edited and looped my recording. These field recordings are my own original recordings.  I have not manipulated any of these recordings except from fading in and fading out.  I recorded using stereo format. Click on the play button if you want to hear Steam: Sounds of a short light-hearted journey on a local Steam Locomotive.


Number 100 pulls away from Bangor. Charles Friel collection

13th July 1964, Bangor.

~ Old photography above taken from book ‘Rails around Belfast’ ~

For more information on steam train event details click here for Steam-trains Ireland website.


2 thoughts on “Steam: Sounds of a short light-hearted journey on a local Steam Locomotive.”

  1. I have a soft spot for trains, so reading about the history of an old line and have a few examples of how trains have been used in music was great.

    I really enjoyed your recording with the rhythm of the wheels in motion and the typical sounds of a steam engine. I almost felt like I was there (smell and air where missing…).

    Have you ever seen/heard this video – History of a sound recording: ?
    I thought you might find it of interest.

    • Thanks Allysse. Yes, this post is meant to demonstrate that musicians/composers can take inspiration from steam locomotives by creating music based around their rhythm and mechanical movement. There are many examples of this throughout different time periods of music. Thanks for sharing the video, terrific work by Benjamin : ) I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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