The debate has raged on for over a year now. It began innocently enough, with a mother posting the following question on Reddit: “How many ‘chuggas’ are you supposed to say before ‘choo choo’?” The mother went on to explain, “I’ve always said two, but now my kid is saying three. However, my kid’s preschool teacher says one and it pisses me off that there aren’t enough chuggas for a choo; how’s the train supposed to go anywhere?”
From that, the conversation blew up to where it has now reached over 31,000 people, 96 percent of which upvoted the query. It found its way onto morning shows and a variety of news outlets. But despite the large response, a consensus or a definitive answer has yet to be found: Many of the respondents said eight, some said four and the mom who posted the question remained steadfast in her belief that it is two.
Clearly, it’s time to help settle this, so I reached out to a handful of locomotive experts.
But perhaps first it helps to understand what a “chugga” actually is. According to James Patten of the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum in Alna, Maine, the “chugga” that people say is likely “the ‘chuffing’ sound made when a steam engine moves. That noise is exhaust from the cylinders. Steam travels from the top of the boiler through pipes down to the cylinder, where it’s admitted into the cylinder via a slide valve. Each cylinder valve has two ports on each end — one to admit the steam into the cylinder to give it power, and one to exhaust the steam. The exhaust is the noise that you hear.”
Patten says that the vast majority of the time, “You will hear two chuffs per cylinder. Most U.S. steam engines have two cylinders, so when an engine is well timed you’ll hear four evenly-spaced chuffs.” This, at first, seems to support the “four chuggas” people, but this is unfortunately not the case, because, as the Golden State Model Railroad Museum’s Jim Ambrose explains, “the whistle is controlled by the engineer, and in no way related to the motion of the pistons — a ‘choo’ is made by the whistle, which would occur rarely in relation to the number of ‘chuggas,’ and would never develop a rhythmic pattern.”
For real locomotives, then, the chuggas and choos are entirely unrelated, which means they can’t settle the debate. Maybe, though, a model railroad expert could help. Unfortunately, Anthony, the shop manager of The Model Train Centre in Lancashire, England, says there is no technical answer to the question because, even on model trains, it’s the “conductor” — or, in this case, “collector” — who makes the “choo choo,” generally with a wooden train whistle.
So it seems there really is no good answer to the “chugga” debate that can be gathered from our physical world. Thus, we must turn to pop culture. To me, a logical place to start is with children’s books, but while there are hundreds of kids books about trains, some of the most popular ones don’t say “chugga” at all: The Polar Express doesn’t say anything like that, and that cute little train Tootle only whines about how he’s not as fast as a horse, never saying “chugga” at all. Even The Little Engine That Could is of no help as, like an enthusiastic frat bro at a party, it just says, “Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff” (when it’s not going on about what he thinks he can or can’t do, that is).
There are examples of four chuggas in some kids books, but probably the most authoritative source on this in children’s literature is the very popular book Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo from 1999. Not only does this book have two chuggas in the title, it also has two chuggas consistently throughout the story, putting it a little bit ahead of other, four-chugga kids’ stories, which never put their four chuggas in a title, ever.
But one kid’s book doesn’t make two chuggas definitive, so it’s worth seeing what children’s music has to say on the matter. A popular song from the album Choo Choo Soul is named “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo,” but within the song, the chuggas and choos vary wildly. To give you just a taste, here is the song’s chorus:
Chugga chugga choo chugga chugga choo choo
Chugga chugga choo chugga chugga choo
Chugga chugga choo chugga chugga choo choo
Chugga choo. Chugga choo
Sometimes it’s one chugga, sometimes two, but the choos also alternate as well. That said, I’d argue that the title of the song shows some “two chugga” favorability.
Another kid’s song switches back and forth between two and three chuggas, and yet another song has three chuggas, but they’re not ever followed by a “choo choo,” which suggests that three chuggas — and perhaps even any odd number — is rhythmically unsound. Another song goes “chugga chugga, chugga wugga, chugga chugga choo choo train.” That’s a lot of chuggas, but the presence of a “wugga” does disrupt the pattern a bit, which again favors the number two.
Although there seems to be no consensus on the matter, books and music appear to show at least a leaning toward two chuggas prior to a choo choo, and with that in mind, I turn to the last area of consideration: cartoons and other children’s programming. Of course, the most famous cartoon train is Thomas the Tank Engine, who first appeared in 1946, a year after Tootle and some 42 years after The Little Engine That Could, but since those other talking trains never said “chugga,” Thomas is the closest thing we have to a definitive authority.
Thomas’ classic theme song says, “chugga-chugga, chugg-chugg, chuff-chuff-chuff,” and later on says, “He chugga-chugga, chuff-chuffs everywhere.” Now, I know that on real trains, the chuffs, chugs and chuggas are all the same thing, but if we count only chuggas here, there are just two chuggas per beat (even if there is no “choo choo” in the whole song).
But Thomas is a very musical little fellow, so he has more than a single song. Another Thomas song has two chuggas, but again, no choo choo. Then a third Thomas song I found does have a “choo choo,” and it goes — are you ready for this? — “chugga chugga choo choo.”
While I’d say that places Thomas firmly in the “two chuggas” camp, he isn’t the only fictional train out there. I was surprised that the train in Dumbo never chuggas at all — he just talks in a creepy, whispering voice. There was also a train song on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that featured four chuggas before each “choo choo.” As for the newer cartoon train, Chuggington, his theme song has a dizzying amount of “chuggas” in it, saying four “chuggas” at one point and ten at another. All of these serve as a buildup to Chuggington’s name, however, and they do not lead to a “choo choo.”
So, an argument could be made that both Chuggington and Daniel Tiger disagree with Thomas’ two-chugga standard, but I’d like to discredit both of those two in favor of Thomas. First of all, Daniel Tiger is just a pantless baby tiger who debuted in 2012. There’s nothing wrong with him, but compared to a 74-year-old actual train, he hardly seems like the authority on the matter. As for Chuggington, he’s just a cheap-ass lousy ripoff of Thomas anyway, so no one gives a fuck what he says.
In the end then, with Thomas’ two-chugga approval, as well as the two-chugga leanings from the world of music and children’s books, I’d say that the kinda-sorta semi-official answer to the question is that two chuggas belong before a “choo choo.”