151218 Subway Whistles - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto
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There are sounds that I miss.

The TTC uses two operators per subway train; one drives while the other rides about two-thirds of the way back, tasked with watching the platform to ensure that the train is clear to close its doors. These days the all-clear is signalled with an electronic chime, but I still remember when it was done with a whistle.

The whistle itself was probably nothing special, just a standard-issue coaches whistle with a rattle pea. But its sound, echoing down the tiled hallways that are subway platforms, was reverberant. As a sound made by people it carried personality; the signal was always a double blast, with the first being a get-ready warning and the doors closing on the second. Two quick pips meant a minor station with few people waiting, and the train would barely dwell at all. A long trilling first whistle might be to hurry up the people on the platform, and a snappy second might express impatience; undifferentiated lazy whistles that trailed off without a stop might mean the guard was tired. I'd imagine that the whole system had moods that I could divine from how it was all working together, that I had a connection to the people who were taking me safely to my destination, day after day.

Now we have electronic chimes.

The faceless system has lost its voice as well.

I'd love to hear the subway whistles again, love to have some humanity brought back. This has been especially on my mind as I watch the Spadina streetcar fleet change from the 'legacy' CLRV to the new Flexity cars. The old rumbling beasts have mechanical gongs that they frequently ring in greeting or displeasure, while their sleek stretched replacements have an electronic substitute. One has character, resonance, performance, and variation; the other sounds a bit like it, but always the same, without expression.

The sound of my city is changing.

I'm okay with that, but I do miss its personality.


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