Railroad Music: Eight Great Train Songs to Run Your Model Railroad To

The railroad has inspired a lot of music over the years, from ‘The Carrollton March’, written in 1828, two years before the first public railroad even opened in the US, through depression-era jazz, blues and folk tunes, up to the modern day, when train-inspired songs are still being written in all genres.

Given the abundance of great train music in existence, and the popularity of the model railroading hobby, it has always surprised me that the two are not more often combined. Just as great food is made better when paired with an appropriate wine, it is my contention that the aesthetic effect of a picturesque model railroad could only be heightened by combination with a carefully-chosen backing track.

There are several possibilities for the realisation of such a project. The most straightforward way would be simply to play the music from speakers in the same room, but it may appeal to some modellers to try to integrate the music more closely into their layout. This could be achieved by concealing speakers within one of the buildings; depending on the details and era of your layout, there could be ragtime piano coming from a Western saloon beside the track, Glenn Miller emanating from a dancehall in town, or a modern-day rock band playing in a stadium or concert hall. The purists may not be keen on this idea, but for me it would also be an interesting project to get music playing from onboard a locomotive.

As already mentioned, excellent railroad songs exist from almost every genre and era, to suit most tastes and layouts. But don’t just take my word for it! Here’s a selection of suggested ‘pairings’, one of which may suit you.

1. Music: Sixteen Tons – “Tennessee” Ernie Ford
Railroad: Anything with coal freight

A story about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by country great Merle Travis. I like the finger-snapping 1955 version by Tennessee Ernie Ford, which made it to number one for a total of 18 weeks. This could be played with any model railroad featuring freight trains hauling coal, but of course it would fit best with a layout set in the ’50s.

2. Music: Long Train Runnin’ – The Doobie Brothers
Railroad: Illinois Central line

An upbeat funk-rock jam which made it to number 8 in its recording by The Doobie Brothers in 1973. The lines “Well the Illinois Central and the Southern Central Freight / You got to keep on pushing mamma you know they’re running late” set the ideal layout for this pretty firmly as the Illinois Central line, but it could be paired with any line set in the ’70s. If you like this song but your railroad’s set in the ’90s, try the 1991 Bananarama cover instead!

3. Music: Chattanooga Choo Choo – The Glenn Miller Orchestra
Railroad: Anything steam

This classic jazz train song was written in 1941, setting it in the transition era, but there’s no question that it’s most fitting for a layout featuring mostly steam. The story and the train which inspired it are slightly muddled, as the song talks about a journey from New York to Chattanooga, but the 2-6-0 steam locomotive it’s about actually ran on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, from Cincinnati to Chatanooga. Don’t let this small discrepancy dissuade you from trying this tune on your layout though!

4. Music: The City Of New Orleans – Arlo Guthrie
Railroad: Illinois Central line

The Illinois Central has more than its fair share of great train songs, as this 1971 Steve Goodman composition is also set on it. Arlo Guthrie made it a hit the following year, and it’s been a firm favorite with folk and country performers ever since. Although its optimum pairing would be with an early ’70s Illinois Central model railroad, I don’t think anyone could criticize you as long as your layout features New Orleans.

5. Music: Rock Island Line – Lead Belly
Railroad: Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad

First recorded by John Lomax in 1934, the number of covers of this song in later years allows it to be played with a wide range of era-fixed model railroads. The old bluesman Lead Belly recorded several popular versions in the late ’30s and all through the ’40s, but it was Lonnie Donegan who made it an international hit in 1955. This would be a great choice for anyone modeling the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which was opened in the 1850s and operated until its eventual abandonment in 1980.

6. Music: A Passage To Bangkok – Rush
Railroad: Any set in Asia

Something a bit different now, for progressive rock fans or those whose layout is set in the East. This 1976 prog song is about a train called the ‘Thailand Express’, and while it may be fictional, there is a luxury train called the ‘Eastern & Oriental Express’ whose line goes through most of south-east Asia. There aren’t as many model railroaders living in this part of the world, and most American and European enthusiasts model trains from their own country, but I didn’t want you to feel left out just because you’re in a minority!

7. Music: Train Whistle Blues – Jimmie Rodgers
Railroad: Any steam

Jimmie Rodgers was one of the earliest really popular country musicians, and grew up working on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. His style of music was undoubtedly influenced by the work chants of the ‘gandy dancers’ he’d have heard during this period, and he ended up recording several train songs, of which my favorite is the yodel-icious Train Whistle Blues. This would work well with any ’20s-’40s steam layout, but would perhaps be especially congruous on a setup modeling either the New Orleans and Northeastern or the Southern Pacific Railroad, where he worked for a spell later in his tragically short life. One can’t help but wonder how many more great train songs he might have recorded had he not succumbed in 1933 at just 35 years of age to tuberculosis.

8. Music: Steel Rails – Alison Krauss
Railroad: Any (’90s and later)

There are a lot of bluegrass/country train songs written in the ’90s and ’00s, and to my mind it’s often a case of “if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard ’em all”. I’ve picked Alison Krauss’ 1990 single Steel Rails as being prettier than most, with an attractive mandolin line running through much of the song. The lyrics aren’t specific to any particular line or locomotive, so you could match this with any layout of the appropriate era, but if you want to be really pernickety it might be best with something in Krauss’ home state of Illinois.

My hope is that this article will inspire at least one or two of you to have a go at pairing your railroad with some train music, and I’m sure we’d all love to see a recording of the result. For those of you who are just starting out in the hobby and don’t even have your own layout yet, there’s no reason you can’t listen to some of these songs while dreaming of your future model railroad.