7 Ways Train Sound Effects Are Used in Visual Storytelling
Let’s have a look at the way train sounds have been used in cinema over the years to support the mood and pace of a scene.
1. Lone Ranger: The sound of freight trains in an action film
This action scene from The Lone Ranger is accompanied by a rich layer of foley. We hear the sound of railroad workers pounding away alongside dramatic horn music. As the scene approaches its climax, the music drops entirely and a sequence of wrenching sounds play while the diesel train comes crashing off the rails. It’s powerful visually, but the audio really helps build up adrenaline and hold the attention of the audience.
This mechanical sounds of the train are humanized by the sound of workers screaming as they dodging the crashing train. Creaky wheels and heavy thuds emphasize the freight train’s weight, underscoring the scene’s importance in the film.
2. Train to Busan: Beeping, Swooshing, and Humming Bullet Train Sounds
The beep and whoosh of closing doors at a train station usually carries pleasant associations. However, it’s interesting to think about how the same sounds can be used in a film like Train to Busan to evoke feelings of anxiety. The gentle closing sounds magnify a sense of looming dread because of what lies inside the passenger train. Moments of silence and white noise are often used to achieve the same effect.
3. Westworld: Steam train whistle, character dialogue, and ambient chugging sounds
It’s not all zombies and train robbers though. A train can represent personal transformation for a character. It’s a quiet space where people seek a moment of refuge from the world. For this reason, important conversations and moments of introspection often take place here.
The show Westworld uses train scenes to mark the beginning and ending of a journey for one of its characters. Inside the railcar, one character tells another “You think you have a handle on what this is going to be…but you have no idea.” A steam train whistle sounds ominously to foreshadow the danger of the Westworld theme park.
Later in the series, the same character is on a steam train wit his lover, traveling in the opposite direction. Subtle sounds of rattling and rumbling make an ambient bed for a new conversation. The dialogue marks a moment where the journey of self-discovery and transformation has reached maturity.
4. Unstoppable: Doppler effects and wooden collision sounds
In this thrilling action scene, veteran railroad engineer Frank races against time to avoid a deadly collision with a rouge locomotive carrying hazardous chemicals. The two trains are due to meet at a railroad crossing and narrowly miss each other.
As the dangerous train passes by, we hear a blaring horn sound effect that warns of imminent danger. Frank narrowly dodges the main cabs of the train, but collides with the final wooden carriage and smashes it to pieces. The intense collision offers some relief and catharsis to the audience, who gets their climactic explosion sound along with the satisfaction of a crisis averted.
5. Inception: The sound of locomotives crashing into metal cars
The iconic train collision scene from Inception is surreal and takes on a symbolic role, representing the main character’s inner turmoil. We’re reminded that the characters are not in control of their dream world.
Here we find a train that’s quite literally gone “off the rails” as it rolls violently through a city street. The bumping, scraping, and smashing sounds mirror the cognitive dissonance in the character’s mind.
6. The Polar Express: Rumbling arrivals and quiet departures
The Polar Express is an animated holiday movie that captures the wonder and excitement of Christmas. Throughout the film, we hear the steady presence of steam train sounds. In the scene below, the train rumbles aggressively on arrival. Later when the character gets onboard, a passenger door slides open quietly and the train chugs forward as it departs, with small creaks and squeals for ambient effect.
Arrival and departure scenes often feature different foley and volume levels, depending on the scenes that come before and after. Loud train sounds imply a build towards a crescendo, while quiet sounds help the audience focus on subtler themes.
7. The Fugitive: Braking and Exploding Train Sounds
In The Fugitive, we find another variant of the doomed train theme. This time, the train wheels grind against their metal tracks and we hear the squeak of failing brakes. They foreshadow the danger that the protagonist will continue to face as he runs from the law.
As the train draws closer, tension mounts and intensifies the life-and-death urgency of the situation. When it finally crashes, a carriage uncouples and careens off the tracks. The sound of metal scraping across the ground makes the scene even more intense and visceral.
Assembling your own collection of ambient train sounds
If you’re working on a video project and need a place to organize your sound design workflow, Audio Design Desk is the way to go. The DAW comes with over 70,000 sounds, including a broad collection of train sound effects in high-fidelity WAV format. If you didn’t get around to it yet, scroll back up to the top page and have a listen to the royalty-free SFX in our embedded audio player. You can download and use them in any video project.