Trains are allowed to operate around the clock, and the whistles they blow are required safety measures.

Staff photo by Danny Drake

Forget roosters or buzzing alarm clocks that get smacked back to sleep repeatedly in the morning.

The blaring whistle of a freight train wakes up those who live within earshot of the Southern Railroad Co.’s tracks, which essentially run parallel to the Black Horse Pike.

“It’s terrible,” said Egg Harbor Township resident Charles Calhoun, 66, who has lived next to the tracks on Noahs Road for a decade. “You can hear them a couple of blocks away. But by the time they get out back here, you have no choice but to get up.”

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Why would a train have to repeatedly blow its whistle at 5 a.m.? Is the train’s engineer just inconsiderate, or jealous, of others’ desire to sleep past sunrise? Or does the whistle still serve a purpose even though most of the people who hear it are sleeping?

Armed with coffee and a notepad, I ventured out to the tracks at 4 a.m. to try to find the answer.

Railroad workers quietly made preparations to railcars before departure, carried jugs of water to trains farther down the tracks and stealthily moved unneeded cars out of the way near Devins Lane in Pleasantville.

But then, about 5:30 a.m., a train started to howl near the intersection of Noah’s Road and Spencer Avenue. The engineer blew the whistle — which is actually more of a horn on modern trains — in a distinctive pattern until the last car, and the flashlight-waving man it was carrying, had cleared the intersection.

And then, it was gone.

John Fiorilla — a lawyer with the Mount Laurel law firm Capehart Scatchard, which represents Southern Railroad and other railroads throughout New Jersey — explained that the need for the whistle, its cadence and its duration are covered by state law.

“The rules provide for how many times you have to blow the whistle, for how long and every so many yards before the train gets to the crossing and (in what pattern) they blow the whistle as it goes over the crossing. It’s not a random thing,” said Fiorilla, adding that engineers practice when to blow the whistle before reaching specific intersections and that there are posts marked with “W” on the approach if they forget.

“The whistle isn’t being blown for no reason,” he said. “State law requires it to be blown, so the engineers have no choice.”

The whistle and the flashlight-waving man are safety measures that Southern Railroad takes seriously, Fiorilla said.

“Safety is an extremely big issue for railroads, it is a big issue for their employees and for everyone it comes in contact with,” Fiorilla said. “The industry is so much safer now because of a lot of these kinds of rules. And that’s great, because we want to make sure everyone gets home at night and no one gets hurt. This is a dangerous business and, as a result, they have to be very, very careful with what they’re doing.”

Whenever there is an accident involving a train, Fiorilla said, one of the first questions that are asked during the investigation is always if the whistle blew.

That was the case in 2008, when a tow truck collided with a Southern Railroad train while trying to beat it through the intersection at Route 9, and then collided into three pedestrians.

“The driver of the truck tried to say that the whistle never blew. The only problem with that was everyone else at the scene heard the whistle,” Fiorilla said.

But why does it have to happen so early?

Fiorilla said the federal government allows railroads to operate around the clock.

“A lot of times railroads are doing business before the start of the business day because they are trying to accommodate a lot of different factors — usually the customers of the businesses that send shipments out,” he said. “If there wasn’t work being done in the middle of the night, nothing would move.”

Calhoun grew up living next to railroad tracks in Gloucester City, but he said Southern Railroad’s trains are louder than the trains from his youth ever were and have gotten louder in recent years, as new businesses have started using the railroad’s services.

“It would be great if they were a little quieter or waited a little longer to do some of the things they do. Because when they slam their cars together, it shakes the whole house,” said Calhoun, adding he believes a drainage pipe on his property was damaged from the cars slamming together. “But it’s the federal government that regulates railroads and I’m not about to take on Washington.”

UPDATE: The out-of-date banners in Atlantic City, which The Press of Atlantic City reported in a “Nonsensical” column on April 22 were still promoting a golf tournament that happened in 2011, still were on display as of Sunday. The Chelsea Hotel owns the advertising space, but it was unclear who was responsible for removing the banners.

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