Danny Boehr/Al Tuner - The Muse From Here Archive - 1995
Last Update: November 8, 2003
Friday, February 17, 1995It's Friday. We leave on time. This evening the power is two M-K Geeps. The treat is they are back to back - something out of an HO set. The trailing unit has its side panels open and is smoking badly. It has been a rough week for it, too.
As we depart we compete for track occupancy with an inbound Metroliner, an arriving "Penn Line" train, the Crescent getting its Washington to Atlanta mail car added, and a departing MARC local to Baltimore.
The conductor announces he is picking up "weeklies" but no one stirs. As we negotiate the terminal trackage, the signals in both B&O and PRR format dictate the route. We bear left and head west, as always.
Outside, the resting Capitol Limited, secure for the night has its Superliners tower over the few cars remaining in the coach yard on this three day weekend. Faint visions of Dome Cars and equipment painted in Baltimore and Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Haven, Southern, Chesapeake and Ohio, Seaboard, and Atlantic Coast Line briefly flash before me. Rememberances of E units and GG-1's bring a quiet, internal smile.
We pass QN, where an operator once hooped up clearance forms allowing entrance to the B&O. Now the tower is a silent sentry, a memorial to bygone days, with its levers of power transferred to computer screens in Florida. I can still recall westbound freights waiting at the bottom of this hill with helpers on the rear, and perhaps CNJ and Reading power on ther front waiting for this last commuter train to get out of the way.
The Geeps take us up the hill at a moderate pace. The trailing unit appears along for the ride, and not contributing tonight. The evening card game is well underway in the head car. Exhausted eyes finish the morning papers. Some sleep. A girl across the way discusses Mongolian restaurants with a friend. There are fewer laptops tonight, because it is Friday, though some people continue to provide input to their insatiable spreadsheets and word processors. A man, with a pen in his right hand seems to be solving today's crossword puzzle, but closer inspection reveals his eyes are closed. Most just stare ahead, enmeshed in sleepy thoughts, elsewhere.
Interlockings jiggle the consist. Groaning EMD power assemblies can still be heard above the din of the car's ventilation system and I listen. A coal train, powered by efficient SD50s, rattles the windows as its 10,000 tons pass in the opposite direction. It is in a rush to replenish the very source of energy that power the phones, faxes and conference rooms my fellow commuters are at this moment gladly escaping.
The sound of my train's whistle blowing for a grade crossing provides assurances of safety and forward progress. For some people this is just a way to return home. For the generals and foot soldiers of bureaucratic organizations, its a relief flight, sent it to take them from the front line trenches of offensive and defensive manuverings that define their work days. For yet others, it represents a practical alternative to the seemingly endless line of glowing brake lights that mark the snarled paths of parallel roads.
For me it is all these things. But as I listen to the units now respond to the engineer's actions, returning to idle and brakes gently applying as we approach my stop, I realize I have a personal advantage. Because to me, it is also a train.
Monday, March 20, 1995Man was I something when I was younger. I was the best. Though my rival perhaps was more famous than I in some circles, it didn't have the mountains of Pennsylvania to get through. A three minute delay made a trainmaster lose sleep and check whether there was room for him in the family business. When I lit the approach light in one of the towers along my path, it was as if a beacon turned on inside a darkened room.
I could do it in 16 hours when I was younger - connect New York with Chicago. Though of great interest to publicists and management my meetings with my rivals at Englewood were more akin to two quarterbacks shaking hands after a close game. I had an all sleeping car train, with a twin unit diner. Names like Conewago Rapids, Connoquennessing Creek, and Tower View were associated with the glitter of my past life. Jellied Madrilane was on the menu. I represented speed, first class amenties, but also a muscularity that powered my nightly assent into the Alleghanies. I climbed that mountain every night, witnessed the controlled infernos in Johnstown and Ambridge, romped past river traffic along the Ohio.
I crossed the Susquehanna on a bridge whose glory befitted me as flagship for the standard railroad. I took businessmen from Philadelphia to appointments in the Midwest, movie stars to Hollywood, royalty and regulars to wherever they wanted to go. I had respect! with coke and ore, lumber and perishables yielding out of my way. I could make a sleepy station resound with the clangings of baggage carts at word of my approach.
Then it started. Coaches. Then slower. Then slower again. Then Tuscan Red gave way to Red, White and Blue, as if my existance was more American that way. The very mountains that give me strength, had the number of tracks diminished by one. The very valley where my soul resides was surgically altered to allow yet another road to be built. I added coaches and sleepers to Washington, and now I take credit for the birth of that train. And when we meet in Pittsburgh on some nights, we acknowledge each other as an aging parent and an offspring, acknowledge each other - me of an unclear future and glorious past, and it wrapped in the false confidence of youth and modernity.
So here I am. Toiling on this first night of Spring of 1995. I have the oldest equipment and perhaps the slowest schedule. I have come a long way to reach this point. And perhaps my time is up. I moved your families in war and peace, joy and sorrow. I transported you in all weather. I sped through Ambridge and Conemaugh, Alliance and Valparaiso, though now I amble through Willard and Garrett. I have gone from top of the line, to almost historical curiosity. But I am not ready for death yet.
People still wave excitedly as I go by. Technology allows modernization still. While I pass trains with containers stencilled for Yang Ming, Hanjin and Hyundai, I am as American as the apple pie still served aboard. And if America wants me still, for the price of the engineering work on a new Interstate, for the price of the erection of a small government building, for the price of one more runway I can be saved.
I have assaulted these mountains for you nightly for decades. I have wiped the ice from my windshields, pressed my headlight against the fog, and sped through evening thunderstorms to carry my patrons through to their destinations safely. I don't stop at rest stops and I don't obliterate the beauty of America with an in-flight movie and cloud cover. Dinner isn't half bad either.
Perhaps straining traction motors to reach the summit still is meaningful to some one, some where. Perhaps leaning out the dutch door to smell the odor of warmed brake shoes and the hisses of escaping air enriches the senses of folks still. There must still be people willing to enjoy what I so wish to provide. After countless millions of miles, perhaps someone will speak for me. Perhaps people who have felt their pulse increase at the sound of my horn, will now begin to payback that favor with some energizing actions of their own. If only people will mouth the words they must be feeling in support of me, instead of saying those words at my passing.
The signs on the highways, I am told, say "Welcome to Pennsylvania ...America Begins Here."We I hope my piece of it does not end here. In my old age, I remain willing and able, if only someone would speak for me. I am not as good as I once was perhaps, but that was of another age. Surely, in this wonderful nation, there is still room for me. Surely the Alleghanies need not be deprived of my nightly visitations. Because when you bury me, more than a train passes for the last time. A piece of America departs. A piece of us all departs. A piece that is not likely to return to us or our children who will not know of this experience we have all shared with such joy.
So after years of faithful service, I have a small request to make. Regardless of the name on the paystub, regardless of the physical location, and regardless of whether a telegraph key or updated software was employed, the people over the years who handled me in dispatchers' offices, yard offices and towers, when deciding on what move was next to be made, asked themselves silently or out loud, "Where is #41??" quickly followed by the necessary manipulations to satisfy themselves of the right answer. I humbly request that you ask yourselves that question, and prepare to be satisfied with the response.
--The Broadway Limited--
Wednesday, April 12, 1995The train arrives early, and we have thirty minutes to change crews, fuel the units and water the cars. Some folks arrive to perform the 1000 mile inspection, and they begin to tinker with valves and stare at the running gear.
Having spent the night on the train, and with the sun warming the countryside, with my insides warmed by the "Railroad Style French Toast," I elect to take a walk.
Across the street is a small public park. A few local residents have their children playing in the park, and you can here the squeals of the kids, finally allowed to run unbridled by snow and cold. Within the park, rests a steam locomotive - more and more a totem of the rail side of town, in village after village. Having not a lot else to do, I make my way over to investigate.
A black beast, needing some paint and perhaps some tender loving care, beyond just restoration and display, I stare at it intently. Not having seen many of these run, I know little about them. If it didn't run while I was alive, it has not been a subject to which I have reserved much time. But, thankfully, there is a sign that someone had the wisdom to post, for folks like me. It says what the unit was, where it was built and over which railroad it ran, and lists the local bank, railroad group and a series of political types to whom we all need to give thanks for having saved the locomotive, or erected the sign. I am not sure of which. The class designation rings no specific bells, the name of the shop of birth is a new one on me, and the name of the railroad I vaguely recall has having been a predecessor road to some other road I have heard of.
A man walks over to me, and having noticed my interest in this metal shadowing of the past, he turns to me and says, "You know when I worked on the railroad, and the local trainmaster died, all of us track workers used to hire a bus, go down to the cemetery after the funeral, and make sure the son of a bitch was dead!"
He smiled as I left. With a knowing look in his eye, he begins to elaborate about the steamer's history, but I hasten to catch my train. I mumble an apology, point to the gleaming train that I must reboard. Discouraged, perhaps saddened by the early abortion of a series of tales he wished to share, but also somehow knowing the routine created when big city folks mercurially pass through this little outpost, he bids me farewell.
Having returned to my seat, I stare out the window to perhaps wave, but the gentleman has moved on.
Months later, I find myself once more trackside. This time at my usual haunt, and with my eyes half closed, listening to the song of a nearby bird, I soon realize I have company. A man, and his son, have come down to this spot along the tracks, in hopes of seeing a train. We chat. Luckily, to the glee of the youngster, and to my quiet joy as well, a train does come along.
With my camera in hand, I spot in the slow moving consist, a Pennsy gondola. I take a picture of it. After the train passes, the boy asks me why it was I took a picture of that particular car. I told him it was sort of a classic, and I specifically recall trainloads of such cars roaming the rails, and now this car, somehow having escaped the paint of Penn Central and Conrail, remains in service. His father looks at his watch, and they quickly leave, as if they needed to reboard a train. In parting, the boy suggests that he appreciated the time, and the explanation, because all the cars looked pretty much the same to him.
Thinking about the last statement long after the two had left, I began to ponder the trains I have ridden on tracks that no longer go there, on railroads no longer found in the Official Guide. Steam before head end power, E's and F's, names on cars that to the knowing explained their interior configurations and the routes they were assigned, cabooses with slogans about roads to the future, and shipping and travelling a particular way.
Perhaps these pieces of rolling stock have their place in history because of what they were, and what they did. But of greater consequence, they are mileposts of whole lives and livelihoods. Maybe you hand your children an old family trinket, not because of its value to them, but its value to you. A fifty foot boxcar painted for the UP is commonplace, but the very same car stencilled for the New Haven pulls an interior string. A string of some length and depth.
So while listening to a retirement speech today, I realized the stories that were retold, met with knowing smiles of the few, and polite but glazed eyes of the many. And since I found myself somehow in most of the stories, having experienced it myself, or know someone who had witnessed the tale, I quickly became aware of where I was in time's continuum.
I grow more unlike the father and son, and more like the man in the park. I had spent as much time considering the value of that steamer, as that boy considered the significance of that Pennsy gon. So a new measure of time emerges.
While I appreciate new equipment, and new paint schemes as they are created from corporate combinations and cataclysm, I begin to recognize the signposts of the past, as a personal calendar. I move closer to the old man's stories, and gravitate away from the unknowing and undiscerning. When you don't have a long personal history, I guess you can't tell the difference from one car to the other, one steamer from the other, passed time from the present.
When you are young all the cars are the same. As you age, some seem rarer than the others.
It is never a question of what is better, or what is now. It is a question of what was there, when you were there.
While we can restore and capture what there was for us, and perserve it for others, the best legacy we can supply is a continuing source of future memories for others. Today's trains are tomorrow's memories.
Let them roll.
Saturday, April 22, 1995As I sit in my darkened Economy Bedroom, speeding through Western Missouri on my way to Colorado, I am prepared to write My Analysis of the American Passenger Train. My laptop illuminates the room to allow me to find my after dinner beverage, and my casette player fills the room with Beethoven's Contra Dances. But to consider the state of affairs....
Perhaps consider the married couple facing trouble. After years of bliss and harmony, difficulty erupts. A therapist is called in. Hard work is required to determine the causes, the solutions, and to define the hard adjustments that must be made if the marraige is worth saving. Friends of the couple are supportive, but they can only wonder if this effort will work, and begin to believe that years of quiet internal decay finally erupted to the surface, and quietly question if the relationship can be saved.
Consider the "American Pastime." Labor difficulties erupt and the players walk off the field for 234 days, robbing the populace of its Fall pageant of athleticism and local pomp and pride, heroes and villains. A mediator is called in. Some fans and followers are supportive of one side or the other, but most agree that the pain stems from internal decay that has finally reached the surface, perhaps fatally. At a time when players should be throwing, catching, hitting, there are news conferences and charges accompanied by the requisite counterclaims. Once play is restored and an uneasy truce is established, fans come back, but wisened by the undercurrents and wounded by how quickly their pastime was taken from them. They seem not to cheer as loud now.
Consider the American people. At a time when spring returns and the smell of rebirth and renewal pervades the continent and trees blossom out there in the darkness I pass through this evening, the nation mourns the losses associated with a mindless massacre in this very Heartland. A President is called in. One needs to mourn but also rebuild and go on. The population can only wonder whether an internal malady has reached the surface, and whether it can be cured, or must some how be endured. Eyes are blurred by tears, and disillusionment. While at the same time, a 17 year old hits an inside the park grand slam home run in a spring training game, giving us all a feeling that perhaps we are all playing on the Field of Dreams and we all would like to slide into home, and be called safe.
So consider the passenger train now. Ridership declines at a time when the largest equipment orders arrive. New locomotives, Superliners and soon Viewliners come to rejuvenate the system. Deficits sore and Congressional critics gain strength. A bureaucrat is called in. Trains are lopped off, careers terminated abruptly, people are laid off system wide. Trains we all assume to be running in the night, never leave their origins, nor will they soon again. Supporters say positive things at national hearings, but they quietly wonder whether an internal malady has finally reached the light of day. The question becomes, can painful re-adjustment save the system, or has the notion of an inter city passenger system broken through the clouds on its death dive?
The marital problem requires a painful remedy, with the hope that such effort will end in renewal. The labor strife that struck not at only the owners, but the way many of us spend our summer evenings, will have been worth it if the game can be restored to near its pristine form. The mourning in Oklahoma will only be constructive if it heals us, and closes the wounds that separate us so vividly, sometimes violently. And the state of the passenger train? It too is being painfully re-engineered, in the hopes of a stable, if not brighter future.
Like the husband and wife, the baseball fan, or the Oklahoma City resident, it is clear life will never be the same again. What we don't know is whether we have reached a small landing in a steady decline and eventual, inevitable loss, or whether the proper steps are being taken to limit spreading fatal flaws.
As the Beethoven ends, the drink is finished and I seek the pillow in the near darkness as America passes by, I stare at the starry sky and wonder.
Sunday, May 21, 1995It was cold, windy and wet when I arrived in Marion Ohio. For some reason, corporate strategies of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central, the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Erie-Lackawanna all found themselves serving this community on their way to somewhere else. Today, Marion does not have an Interstate Highway ramp.
Now Norfolk Southern, CSX Transportation and Conrail all converge within one thousand feet of each other, creating a large letter "H" involving eight diamonds. Conrail is the gate keeper from a console in Indianapolis.
As I arrived, I noticed a wonderfully rustic station, with well manicured lawns and brick walkways. Surprisingly, but some how naturally, a face from within the former agent's turretted vantage point peered out to the tracks, as if waiting for the 620pm to Buffalo. Seeking advise about food and shelter 500 miles from my home, I was summoned inside by being directed to the historically correct entrance door.
It was warm and dry inside, and the interior was quite magnificent. Quick conversation revealed that a vibrant active partnership between local enthusiasts and responsible community leaders was in the process of restoring the station. Despite a recent fatal heart attack suffered by a key artisan recently, marble is being restored, paint re- applied and the intricate ceiling woodwork is slowly coming back to life. The local model railroad club is headquartered here, and memorabilia is being acquired to eventually sell in the space reserved for a future gift shop.
The gentleman explained all this to me including a detailed personal tour, while it continued to rain outside. I have discovered that if you travel abroad, and enter a house of worship of your faith, all perceptions of time and distance fade in the warmth of shared understanding. So it was here, as talk of trains consumed us.
We were interrupted by the sound of air chimes. And, like just knowing when to rise at a religous ritual, we automatically approached a trackside window, to watch a Norfolk Southern coal train roar across the diamonds. My host explained the hoped for results of the restoration - a rail museum. For some reason, the word "Amtrak" was introduced, and he stopped in mid-sentence to say "We have told those people we are ready for service between Cleveland and St. Louis or wherever".
For the next day, I watched the parade of trains on all three lines with enjoyment. Union Pacific run through power on Conrail won my personal Best of Show Award. But in between the passage of trains, I stared at that station - a stone edifice against time and the elements. The exceptionally high tower, reminiscent of a Fire Ranger's outpost looms large over the scene. One can easily imagine climbing to the top and bellowing "Train Ho!!" to the passengers trying to get to Toledo below.
Now the tower has been made obsolete by the ubiquitous rust colored metal box, announcing this place as CP 101. Imagine riding a train, stopping at a station, moving the curtains and looking out the window to find you are in CP101, Ohio. But I guess it doesn't matter now.
Passengers, baggage and express have given way to coal, automobiles and corn syrup. George Pullman's service here has been replaced by J B Hunt's. But as the evening's dark approaches, the local hobby club members converge on their station. They have worked hard to accomplish so much. They have a warm dry building in which to gather and great plans for the future. But it is clear that within each of them, and within that building itself, they have also secured a place to light a candle in the window for a passenger train.
Sunday, June 18, 1995You are attending a cocktail party and someone walks over to you and asks you why it is you like trains. Or perhaps, it's a family gathering and a bored cousin approaches you with the same inquiry. Though tantamount to asking "Why is the Sky Blue?" you find yourself politely trying to explain it, and failing miserably to respond to the person foolish enough to ask.
Not happy with the usual outcome of these short and aborted discussions I have often tried to determine my own answer. And, like a committee of the blind, feeling their way around an elephant, I have come up with the following glimpses into the answer.
It's mid-May and I am standing in the official railfan parking lot in Berea OH, taking in the comings and goings of the Conrail mainlines. It is mid afternoon, and a weekday, and I am for the moment alone. My scanner, and other paraphenalia are at my side, and I am adorned in jeans and a t-shirt. A man, dressed in a suit, approaches me from the car that just pulled up. Automatically, though with some defensiveness emerging from within, I recall the rusty sign proclaiming this spot of earth as owned by some non-railroad entity. I am ready, though discouraged, for the questioning of my being there.
The gentleman, asks if I am a rail enthusiast. I respond that I am. (Why else would I be there? Surely not to admire the planes taking off from Hopkins some miles distant!!! And what of it???) He inquires further as to whether I saw an Amtrak locomotive pass in a freight train a few minutes before. (Feeling better already) I respond that I had seen it. He smiles, and asks if I had taken notice of its road number. I tell him it was the 348. He looks relieved. He goes on to explain that his office overlooks the tracks, but that he was in a meeting when it went by. He is attempting to keep track of all Amtrak units he sees, and was concerned that one got away. He thanks me profusely, and we stand there for some time discussing railroading in Ohio. He produces a business card and we are fast friends. We agree to meet the next day, at which time he produces detailed railroad maps of Cleveland for my future guidance, and introduces me to his father who is visiting. The aging gentleman insists on telling me about the steam locomotives of his youth while we watch a modern day railroad before us. Numerous other fans are there, some from distant places, and we chat endlessly. I meet a person on this board! The circle remains unbroken.
It is three weeks later. I am riding the Capitol Limited westbound, and am sitting in the diner enjoying my steak while ascending the Alleghanies from Cumberland. It is that great time of the year, when sunlight extends into the mountains. I am joined by a retired couple going to Seattle and we chat about life and kids. We pass through Mance, and I interject a small explanation of where we are, as they look forward to see the locomotives, and to the rear to see their sleeper going around the curve. We plunge into Sand Patch tunnel, and I break off the conversation to enjoy it. The tower operator waves to us, as always, as if saying you have reached the zenith safely once more....continue your journey. But alongside the tower, there is a photographer, standing behind his tripod, scanner dangling from his belt. The retired couple must think me strange for waving, and stranger yet, the photographer returns the salute. I smile. I am never alone here.
It's the following morning and I awaken at 4:00 a.m. in my room. A quick look out the window reveals we are in Cleveland OH. A double stack train comes by, with Southern Pacific locomotives and I feel a rush. I decide to stay up and watch for Berea, a place I had just been to. We depart and meet two other freights after clanging over the drawbridge. Then Rockport. Then Berea. We cross through the interlocking and I look at the parking lot where I spent those enjoyable hours so recently. It is 4:15 a.m. and there is a car parked there. The silhouette of a person is standing next to the car, looking at the train. Where once I was observing, I am now being observed. A sentry. An observer. An enthusiast enjoying the trains and the solitude of the hour. I don't feel far from home here.
As I take my Sunday evening walk around the neighborhood, the air remains warm and still, as the sky turns orange. It is the end of a weekend and random thoughts envelop me. What will this week be like? What do I owe the boss as soon as I walk in the door? Can I avoid being mentally and emotionally drained by Friday afternoon? Will I ever wear the tie I just got for Father's Day? A train a few miles off blows loudly for a grade crossing, and brings that sound directly into my ears. The parade of thoughts ends abruptly and I feel the hairs on my neck straighten. A call to prayer? The blowing of reveille? It reaches inside me and tugs at the soul and directs the mind. A freight train from the Midwest? Intermodal traffic from the port to the center of the nation? Yet more coal from the mountains and valleys of West Virginia? No matter. I remember a favorite old song:
Wednesday, June 28, 1995What is it about Chicago? Arguably the rail capital of the continent, but that statement does not really do it justice.
It is early Saturday morning and I am standing at Porter Interlocking in Northern Indiana. Three other fans are on hand on this warm morning and we chat. I ask them to advise me as to where else to go this weekend, and I get different suggestions from each. I realize belatedly, that what I just did was tantamount to asking a librarian for his best book.
What is it about this place that one finds Warbonnets leading freights on Conrail? What perverse magic is displayed when one finds a Soo Line coal train fighting it's way to a Union Pacific yard? Why does a Conrail operator control access to a CSX and a UP Yard at Dolton? If all those trains run along the shore of the Little Calumet River, how many trains run along the Big Calumet River?
While driving around, why does nearly every Interstate exit sign evoke thoughts of an interlocking of the same name? Why do thousands of crawling motorists, stare at those wonderful roadside Metra ads, EVERY DAY??
Only in Chicago can you meet a railfan and his son, standing at their favorite spot for viewing, mention another place in the area that you just visited, and be left with the distinct impression they have never been there. Only in Chicago does the advancement of trains remind you of the game of your youth, that involved asking whether you could take a "baby step" or a "giant step" and be denied because you didn't say "May I?" Why is that regardless of where I was, what facility I was viewing, a train was held by a terminal controller "until the Grand Trunk man" gets in the clear. Who is this ubiquitous man?
Only in Chicago will the operator at Thornton Junction query the engine crew of Amtrak #50 as to when they think they will reach his control point. One only wonders which of the other, several headlights facing his location, did he want to move first?
Only in Chicago can you get so thoroughly confused while watching CSXT traffic move west on the Union Pacific. Do you visualize these cars assaulting Sand Patch or Sherman Hill?
What is it about this place that you can sit under a shade tree in Berwyn IL, scan the Sunday paper while watching the unlikely duo of Canadian National and Southern Pacific riding Burlington Northern rails? You can only find Polish sausage on a hard roll in Dolton, but can sip Ethiopian coffee latte and a bundt cake in Elmhurst.
A marathon weekend can have strange effects on you. You can listen to that hum roller bearing trucks create while moving at speed on welded rail and wonder what the heck note that is. I noticed that Allied Van Lines has joined the double stack container movement, leaving me to wonder, the next time you relocate can you stipulate your worldly possessions go that way? ("I prefer the upper deck, please?")
Why is it that one day you watch a Powder River coal train with HATX hoppers on the Union Pacific, and the next day you find an HATX SD40 on a CP Rail train, and after considering yourself a good student of the industry, you find yourself humbled by having no clue who HATX is? (But you know if you were running things you would have that HATX locomotive pull that HATX train.)
When you watch wide nosed Canadian National Geeps pulling fifty loaded auto racks from a Union Pacific yard to an Indiana Harbor Belt yard, where in heaven's sake is it going?
What is it about this place that you find yourself chatting with a fan from Indiana while waiting for a CP train, and the conversation turns to the demise of the Alcos. As it turns dark, you linger for one last train. The second unit is the #4214, and you turn to see his reaction, and he is gone.
It is this place that makes you realize, much like the F40's hastened the demise of E units on passenger trains, the C40 (and its relatives) is pushing the SD40 into oblivion in freight service. (mostly). It is this place that made me a believer when a single AC traction motor equipped GE locomotive (with a single digit road number) on CSXT hauled 110 loads of coal handily before my eyes. It is here that I have come to realize that a setting sun looks best shining on a CNW unit. It is here that I determined that if I were to build an HO model of any railroad serving Chicago, I could run a Conrail locomotive on it and win the argument for appropriateness.
Why is that trains move at high speeds on the major lines, only to stagnate, perhaps for days between junctions here? Why is it that I suspect most of the containers crawling on the roads here, are actually transferring from railroad to railroad, and even while standing in traffic they are doing better than they otherwise would on the railroad, waiting for the GTW man to clear. Why is it that Canadian container traffic moving from Halifax to Vancouver comes here? Why is it that you realize that the words "signal maintainer" sound like the equivalent of life long job security? I never did figure out what rail line that was that always had trains moving on it when I drove beneath it on Interstate 290.
Perhaps it is the impossibility of grasping the whole picture or too much time in the sun that makes one ponder if Global One is the cosmic center of intermodalism, then what is Global Two? Scientists have shown us that the chaos theory can explain some major natural occurrences such as weather, or the movements of sub-atomic particles. Have railroads mimicked nature here since there is no single point of control, but it all seems to work?
Only here, can I, after spending a marathon weekend and while driving back to the hotel feel quite satisfied, then come to the realization that I completely left out two Class 1's (sorry Santa Fe and NS), all the regionals and most of the major switching lines.
Around here, the local boosters, have decided to call the region Chicagoland. To me it sounds like a part of a Disney theme park. A Fantasyland of railroading.
Monday, July 17, 1995On the Internet they call it "surfing the net." You can log on, let a few keystrokes guide you and there you are. A library in Paris, a virtual reality game brought to you by a brainy university, software of all kinds for the taking, and an IRC chat with whomever you like, all can occur in real time. The intellectual and the emotional landscape all available, at the touch of the keys. A truly amazing feat of human kind.
So I tried it, with my limited knowledge and computer ability, and it was fun. I admit it. Then I went outside and sat in my backyard. My backyard is the antithesis of worldwide communication. A high fence for privacy. The only ones allowed without an invitation are members of my immediate family, and the hundreds of birds, squirrels and rabbits that visit the bird feeder hourly. While I often think of these creatures as messengers from other places, much like Noah's dove, we don't communicate, but merely entertain each other as we puzzle each other out.
Yet this comfortable miniscule fraction of the land mass, on a warm Sunday evening, is an easy connection to the World Wide Web Within. Without benefit of a modem, I can see the Capitol Limited snaking its way past Hyndman at this time of day. I can feel the sweat of the car inspector as he walks along yet another newly arrived train in the receiving yard of Conway, or Argentine, or North Platte.
I can imagine the toil of the coach cleaner walking through the equipment of the completed MARC Baseball special, cleaning up the debris of the departed Oriole fans, who spoke of the glorious winning home run Cal Ripken hit just hours before. The car cleaner toils with difficulty, but its overtime, and its a good job.
I am trackside watching rocketting Santa Fe intermodal trains chasing the sun in New Mexico, or Long Beach bound double stacks winding through West Texas, with a date with a boat in the harbor.
I can hear the screaming of brakes as yet another 110 loads of coal descend from Bluefield on the Norfolk Southern. I can smell the aroma of the Zephyr's diner as its patrons, flush with visions of the Rockies and the Colorado River, approach the day's final joy as the sun sets in Ruby Canyon.
I can feel the hot wind of C40's, blackening the sky as they guide Powder River coal through Nebraska, Kansas or Oklahoma. I can feel the grit on my neck of the tower operator in Dolton, routing yet another train through his puzzle to Blue Island or Yard Center.
I can see the SEPTA local, reaching its destination, with the venting of control valves not only applying the brakes for the night, but also heaving the air of relief that another day is done. I can see the railroad supervisor, on a Sunday night, enjoying dinner with friends and family, but carefully eyeing the telephone - a constant threat of interruption.
The freight train assaulting Cajon, the vessel in Baltimore harbor with steel for a waiting string of gondolas, the Southwest Chief departing Albuquerque with passengers bedecked with the jewelry they purchased on the station platform, the string of electric MU's racing along the Hudson River to Harmon, the lightning strikes outside the window of the Broadway as it approaches Harrisburg, are all there to see. Yet one more hopper train assaulting the Horse Shoe for a Monday mine loading, thrilling the few remaining fans on a Sunday evening. The glorious Pacific coast line as seen from a Superliner lounge, a toiling switcher moving cars into position at an auto assembly plant, or a Metroliner patron enjoying a drink after a New York weekend. A blinking EOT in a Midwest yard, indicating an organized train in a sea of freight cars.
What tool am I using to bring this all to my touch? What, yet amazing invention has brought this show to my eyes?
My backyard, an easy chair, the chirping of birds waiting their turn at the feeder, and a few squirrels. I just closed my eyes for awhile.
Sunday, August 13, 1995I have always been drawn to nature. Perhaps one of the joys of train travel is the fact that a coach window also acts as a lens through which one can view the innumerable variations of the natural scene, unencumbered by physical barriers or mental and emotional preoccupations. One of the great joys of my annual week at the beach is this notion, this ability, to scan at once the heavens and the sea. The beachside porch becomes my dome seat view.
This particular week I have wallowed in the calm and serenity of warm days, docile seas and cloudless skies. An outboard engine would have been required to move the inflatable raft I was riding. Without comment or explanation strong winds arrive, sleep is disturbed by a raging thunderstorm, as lightning flashes, pounding rain and bone vibrating thunder attack in the night.
Morning comes and slate gray skies hover over a boiling sea. Sea birds go about their business unconcerned, with no editorial comment as to "bad" weather versus "good." This notion is appealing.
The tidal onslaught that erodes the beach is a natural phenomenon which acts as a measure of time as one compares old remembrances with the current status. As people, we bemoan the loss of the beach selfishly, much like mourning the loss of the sun as it sets upon a scenic landscape while riding a transcontinental train. But the foolishness of protest is so much more evident here, because natural sights and sounds are so much a part of what goes on. It drives the action.
Perhaps this idea of constant change, this notion that there is no particular statment between calm and storminess, no preference between a boiling sea and a docile one is a lesson to be learned.
My thoughts of trains are part enjoyment of the current action, part relishing past delights. My childhood memories of riding on a four track railroad astride the Hudson River in the observation car of the Empire State Express does not square well with a dingy midtrain Heritage Lounge on a two track line on the same route today. In a few short weeks there won't even be a train called the Broadway Limited.
Take away the rabble about cost, the empty political platitudes we are subjected to, the sacrifices on the altar of re-engineering and downsizing. Place them here on the beach. Imagine a campaign speech on the shore promising fair weather and you can appreciate the farce better.
What you are left with is inexorable change. Perhaps the Phoebe Snow. the Denver Zephyr, the Lark, the North Coast Limited, and now the Broadway, were sand castles we built, enjoyed, occupied and appreciated. To mourn their loss is to fall into that unreal place of that politician on the beach, oblivious to the larger picture.
A storm is not an editorial comment, but is a thing that happens. It is not something that can be easily diverted. The weather changes regularly as most things do.
But we can always cherish our memories.
They are a safe harbor for us all.
Sunday, August 20, 1995So we gathered again, this time on a sun filled warm August morning in Virginia. One of us arrived overnight on the train, suggesting that these days Amtrak is best taken laying down. Others of us were local, others were missing because of time. distance and other obligations.
We have done this time and time again, sometimes in this area, other times in Gibsonia, Philadelphia, New York or Cherry Hill. It is often the same. A small distraught group of family, relatives and long time friends, and then perhaps the largest group consisting of former colleagues, subordinates, superiors - comrades in arms.
With purges, reorganizations and "resets," often this is the only time we see each other now. This is especially true for those who have gone on to other things, or for those who have fallen from their thin tethers in the latest storms. Here a twenty year service pin is still appreciated, and no one hired since 1993 comes, not because they are malicious, but much like many of us not falling within their plan, they just don't fit in here. We intuitively know how to do this, and have no need (nor perhaps do we ever need) legions of consultants to optimize the results.
I find my seat, next to the same person I always sit next to. The pall bearers come in and take their seats, and the organ plays. Around the room, there are Executive Vice Presidents, Vice Presidents, Directors, Managers, rank and file. For many of these people you have to insert the word "former" or "imperiled" in front of their title. We ail met sometime in the last twenty years, brought together by a common goal and mission, and are now welded together by common experience and shared passion.
The organ sounds a little like a calliope to me. The service begins. As the Lords Prayer is said, some of us smile, as we remember our fallen friend's joke about "and lead us not into Penn Station." Someone recalls how the building guard caused trouble when the after hours registry was signed by C. Burlington Quincy.
The officiate speaks of comfort, of heavenly spirit to this heterogenous group of belief and non-belief. The symbols of the church and the symbols of our secular bond are wed when during the "offering of gifts" a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger timetable is placed upon the ceremonial table.
The priest speaks of life and death, to the puzzlement of some of us. Someone recalls a twenty year debate with the deceased over whether the Pennsylvania or the New York Central was the superior road to the bewilderment of the priest. Another reminds us of our fallen friend's game of "Guess the Interlocking" played on a cocktail napkin. The priest smiles politely but we have clearly lost him now.
We stand and sing Amazing Grace, wipe our red eyes and file out the door. Twenty years ago many of us did not know each other. We joined forces, and in so doing tried to fulfill a vision we all collectively saw. Many labored long and hard, and also discovered that our mutual vocation, also was a mutually held avocation as well. Working together, yes, but also looking for a good cup of coffee along the UP mainline in Nebraska, or a place to dine while watching trains assault Cajon or Horse Shoe. We learned the neighborhoods where trains dwelled so well, that lunch time discussions were devoted to how to get to Mance or Grand Island.
Upon the conclusion of the service, we left each other, knowing inevitably we will do this again, but hopefully not soon. Some dead, most of us alive, we remain committed to the cause, and will not walk away from those parallel ribbons of steel that remain for us to enjoy. Life remains a symphony, and I know that this was just a pause between movements, and we must all go back to lifting the baton. We mourn, we move on. And our fallen friend who thought of traffic signals as guardians of asphalt interlockings has a Pennsy timetable to enjoy.
Wednesday, September 6, 1995I watch about one hundred or so baseball games a season. My closest friends and family tell me that my outlook on life during the season, is directly related to how my favorite team is doing. The lower their standings, the deeper I sink. The higher they are, the more springy my gait.
Many years ago, Frank Robinson, a man who excelled in two leagues, hit a pitched ball that actually left the confines of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. No one had done it before, nor since. To mark that incredible achievement, a pennant was permanently placed at the spot of departure, with the simple words "HERE!" And we all knew what it meant.
Cal Ripken surpasses Lou Gehrig tonight in games played consecutively. And deep down in our hearts we are thrilled by his accomplishment. He represents for us all, a litany of desirable traits. His home grown Maryland charm, his skill, his competence, his consistency regardless of the situation, his modesty, yes, his class, bring to us all the warm breezes of baseball, at a time when many things surrounding this best of all sports blows cold. What he does, he does well, and all the time.
So it was particularly poignant, when Frank Robinson walked over to him and handed him a pennant, that said "HERE." And we all knew what that meant.
Twenty seven years ago, I was dating a girl that I knew from high school. We saw each other on the weekends, and spoke on the phone nightly, as well as our daily encounters at school. We liked each other. She knew of my rail passion, though in all fairness, this was not an act of acute perception on her part.
One night we were chatting, and she advised me that her father, a hockey fan, had asked her to go by Madison Square Garden, to pick up some New York Rangers tickets. She did that. But when she was done, she had some time and, without ever having set foot in the place before, and having no real feel for what she was doing, she went into Penn Station, and went down to track level to seek out the Broadway Limited.
Like a pro, she dutifully copied down the consist of the train. So when we spoke that night, she asked me to write down the following: 4912, 4898, 6513, Conewago Creek, Imperial Sands, Huron Rapids, Conemaugh Rapids, Harbor Rest, all the way to Tower View.
She asked me if I knew what all this meant, hoping to have accomplished her goal. I knew what it meant. It meant I was going to marry this woman eventually. We watched the game together last night in our house.
In those years, any time I was able, I would ride out to Altoona. At night I would park myself on one of the many baggage carts on the west end of the station platform there, and watch the incredible show. The constant parade of freight trains with helpers struggling up the grade was interspersed with the Tuscan Red fleet of passenger trains. There was the Penn Texas, the Spirit of St. Louis, Cincinnati Limited, Pennsylvania Limited, and a mail train numbered #19, with F7's on the point, new SD45s shoving on the rear. But when train 28 or 29 arrived, there was a special feeling in the air. The same feeling I enjoyed last night, when among the notables, Hank Aaron walked over and hugged Cal Ripken. It was special. I felt the hairs on my neck become erect, despite the hour of the day, or the fatigue I was feeling, identical to those nocturnal marathons of railroading in yesteryear.
Why was the Broadway special? Because it was class, consistency, style, a competence in service, regardless of the circumstances. It exuded "Pennsylvania." right there in its mountainous soul. You could count on it. It made you realize you were observing the best there was over a long period of time. It too, was a streak of excellence.
Now when I go take in a baseball game, Boog isn't standing on first, Brooks has long since departed his station at third, Earl isn't driving the umpires crazy, and Paul Blair is not patrolling the expanses of center field. I sit here and can't conceive of someone other than number #8 playing shortstop, diving for hot shots in the hole, gaining his feet and slinging a hard accurate throw to get the runner at first. It would be inconceivable after 14 years of being there everyday and uncountable roster changes at the other positions. Yet, I know, some day this too will happen.
But I will likely keep coming back, even after that dark day, just as I have after the others had left, because it is after all still baseball. During pauses in current games, I can still remember all those wonderful accomplishments of past stars and heroes.
But now it is time for the Broadway Limited to hang up its spikes after years of being a constant part of the action. Having coursed through my life in so many ways, it is very difficult to conceive of a time when I will sit on that mountain, at the appointed hour and not see this train ascend to the Alleghany summit. Perhaps just the sound of Burgoon Run below, or helpers meandering down the hill, will be all there is to witness, instead of a New York to Chicago passenger train, lights blazing from within.
Just like Boog and Brooks, the Penn Texas, and the Admiral, ultimately Cal and the Broadway, thoughts of them warm hearts in changing times. Yet I will continue to return to these haunts for whatever there is to enjoy. Cal's replacement will not be Cal. The introduction of double stack service on this railroad, is not the Broadway Limited. But it is still railroading, and it is still baseball.
So on the Ninth of September, 1995 an era will end. So cheers for #8, and for #29 and for #41. You have performed well and excelled for a long time, outlasting many things.You are ensconced in my life for keeps. And the next time I visit that mountainous shrine to railroading, I will take a stick and inscribe in the high ground overlooking the right of way, the words "HERE!", because it was, and it was important. And we knew what it meant to us all.
Wednesday, October 4, 1995The onset of Fall, for me, always brings a need for personal introspection. The cooling of the air, the transformation of the trees and animal life, the leaves on my lawn and car in the mornings, and most assuredly the end of the baseball season, creates a change in me as well.
So it was more than coincidental that I found myself last weekend sitting on the Horse Shoe Curve once again. The blue sky, golden Alleghanies and weak but warming sun, held me as a mother would hold a child in distress.
There were plenty of trains, and plenty of people to watch them. The recent improvments to the facility, as well as the new "train watching" platforms in Cresson and Gallitzin were hopeful signs of continued accesibility to this place, and symbolic of continued faith that there would be a show to observe.
Folks were taking in the glorious scenery. Lovers walked quietly holding hands, in the midst of rail enthusists avidly exercising the accoutrements of their passion - scanners, cameras, timetables and cam corders. A Norfolk Southern train dispatcher befriended a retired signal company employee as they jointly discussed radio controlled locomotives. Others found other common ground upon which to communicate. Some stood quietly alone, but clearly glad to be there.
At a time when the winds of change blow so hard, one must have substantial strength to keep standing, let alone advance forward, here I could quietly ease up on the effort to stabilize, because the ground was soild with familiarity. Perhaps like a seabird, becoming tired of the effort of flight at sea, this was the comforting sight of land, and some sense of safety and security. A deep breath was in order.
In a world where the trivial is focussed upon, so that the important can be ignored, at a time when leadership is some how confused with rhetoric, a haven from it all becomes more important. At a time when correctness is given higher marks than being correct, when a sense of community and joining together is supplanted by narrow interest, just plain folks joining together by their presence on this mountain radiates some hope for the future.
An integral part of a personal survey of oneself, has to include a review of what feels right, what is cherished, what is the basis upon which you retain things, so that you can best determine what must be jettisoned and what you need to fix up, or further explore. Even in baseball, one must touch all the bases before attempting to score.
So I went to that mountain again, to make sure my intuitively obvious understanding still was in fact the case. After a while, two double stack trains came down that mountain at the same time, placing an involuntary grin on my face. It was clear to me how I felt about this scene. I needed no further evidence.
The winds of confusion, distrust, perhaps creeping cynicism may blow harder still before, if ever, a much sought peaceful calm comes. Much like loved family, cherished friends and good music, this place, so often just in the mind rather than being there in reality, sustains me. Because it is a constant. Because it is a place to escape to. Because it shelters me in the shadow of its hills.
At the end of a contentious day, when the barbs and pressures of life sting hard, I can always close my eyes briefly and recall this place, to regain a sense of balance, a sense of joy, and a sense of self-definition.
So much of humankind's ancient history speaks of revelations on mountaintops. On my way home, alone in my car, I realized now I know why.
Sunday, October 15, 1995The season changed with some emphasis this weekend. Balmy warm weather gave way to cold northwestern winds, after first being announced by hard rains, and even some tornadoes dancing about. But it was also a weekend, where local fall foliage festivals abounded. Amtrak operated five different special train operations in New England, the Pacific Northwest, to Branson, MO, through West Virginia's fabulous New River Gorge and in Altoona, PA. (A national transportation system?) It was probably a record for them, and more are scheduled elsewhere. Freight carriers were not immune to the special train operations, as Conrail readied a train to go down the banks of the Susquehanna River, and Union Pacific planned to operate a train out of Chicago.
I opted to partake of the train in Altoona (surprise!). To me this was the most special, though I probably would have headed there anyway. For this was truly unique. Here, a railroad not particularly known for its public and community involvement forged a partnership with Amtrak, with whom it is battling in front of the Interstate Commerce Commission over compensation issues. The catalyst? The Railroaders Memorial Museum of Altoona.
Gates were opened to Conrail's (STAY OUT) enormous Juniata Shops, primarily because those who manage this key facility are proud to show to the world what it is they proudly do. There a new SD60I, built by the people who live and work there, was surely a centerpiece to local ingenuity and skill. Units painted for San Diego and Imperial Valley, Nittany and Bald Eagle and Providence and Worcester, represented the proven and eclectic skills of the people who labor within.
Amtrak provided Superliner IIs and a Viewliner as well as the precedent setting excursion train. The Museum's skill in forging the partnership of these two giants was evident by the professionalism of the volunteers, the competency of the organization as buses, police activities, local community organizations and railroads worked together seamlessly.
For me, I rode the sold out excursion over the Horse Shoe including that rarity, the loop track between AR and UN. Since locomotives were required on each end (shared by AMTK 317 and a freshly painted CR 6659, built in 1966 but looking brand new), the loop track was clearly employed to be sure all passengers got the majestic view, regardless of what side then rode .... nice touch.
My son and a friend's son got to ride the, train, ring the bell of an SD60I and tour Amtrak's best, much to their enjoyment. Frankly, I was attempting to fulfill Steve Goodman's prophecy, so that sons of Pullman porters and sons of engineers, could ride their fathers' magic carpets made of steel. As the mountains were shrouded in clouds, and rain poured down, the near-violence of the weather and its effect on the landscape were striking. It was good. The kids were enthralled.
The result of all this was very impressive. 2,500 people rode around the Horse Shoe that otherwise would not have. Thousands of others, now understand what goes on behind those gates at the east end of town, and can appreciate the modernity of an industry, so much thought of as historical rather than currently critical. Lights did not dim in Maryland for lack of coal deliveries, Atlantic ports did not go without their containers, and auto plants did not close in the Midwest for lack of parts. Just in time, stayed on time. But TV viewers saw an interview with an older woman, saying her husband and she had not been on a train since 1949. Her husband interrupted her. It was 1944. She stood corrected.
While railfans were certainly represented, these folks were certainly more the general populace of central Pennsylvania. It was for this reason that their local politicians spoke at length at opening ceremonies, in support of that day's activities, but also Amtrak, for whom 2,400 people could thank for their attention to this region this day.
It was a good day. People enjoyed themselves, but also learned that railroading was far more than a historic part of the nation's activities. You cannot buy that kind of appreciation.
So today, I wandered around on the Curve for awhile, watching passenger trains assault and descend the mountain, reminiscent of the level of service when I first came to visit this place 30 years ago. My small support to the effort felt like a little payback, for all the joy this place has given me all these years.
But more importantly, here were three organizations managing to co-operate fully for a weekend for the benefit of the public. Here were railroaders, former and retired railroaders, railroader wannabes, volunteers, fans, rail authors, historians, enthusiasts and professional museum management, civic authorities, the local bus company and local leaders all working together to proclaim the current glory of railroading and show the world what it has to offer.
There is so much to share it seems so strange that this was a rare event, a modern anomaly. There are so many positive statements we can make and rarely make them. There were so many inquiries about where Amtrak runs to, and prices and accommodations, it was as if a deep secret had been unveiled. Or more likely, a latent public interest made sharper.
It struck me, that this felt like a potential beginning. Museums built to enshrine and protect the past, promoting the excitement of the current scene. People coming together to do just that. And doing it well. The turned back ticket requests to the sold out excursions indicated the seam tapped here in these mountains.
As I departed the Curve, I was standing at its base about to walk over to my car, as an enormous eastbound intermodal train wrapped itself around the valley, taking the shape of the Curve itself. I turned to my wife and told her this place is as impressive as the first time I came here and witnessed that scene. A couple came out of the gift. shop and Looked up to the those high cars moving above and around them. One said to the other, "Wow look at that! That is really something! So this is where they turn the trains around!"
I smiled and shook my head. There is much to do, but this weekend was a start.
Friday, October 20, 1995The rain beats down hard on my den window tonight. Storms march through here now weekly, harbinger of atmospheric change. Temperatures slowly drop on average, as after every front that passes, it gets a little colder each time, warmth takes longer to return, soon to disappear all together.
My ride on the CTA allowed me to spot CNNA power coupled with a B23-7 still in Family Lines paint. Santa Fe warbonnets, coupled in lengths of five, shuffle back and forth from Corwith, now leaving their trains in the immense intermodal facility at Willow Springs. None of this was possible to see five years ago, yet now it is commonplace.
A drayage operator, stops his chassis laden with a 40 foot container from Russia at a stop light. A Triple Crown RoadRailer eases up behind it. A regular scene in the crossroads of commerce in Illinois, yet unimaginable just a few years ago.
A cheap flight on a cheap airline brings me home. Its packed. I land up sitting backwards, in the middle of three seats. Juice, and peanuts are served, precariously balanced in my lap, for there is no way other way to manage this "meal." Turbulance makes the juice near the lip of the cup as I attempt to open the bag of peanuts with my teeth. This is progress, or at least part of the progress of the airline industry, for it appears to be spreading, growing and becoming more accepted as the mode of choice.
As I grow older, I become more aware of these changes, these loops, these perturbations, perhaps as markers of a larger picture that I cannot grasp. A politician speaks of saving Amtrak, loosening the legislative ropes that make it beholden to labor. It makes it easier to be flexible, yet at the same time, cheaper to dismantle. Labor protection kept trains on, because of the financial disincentive in having to pay off everyone for six years. Absent that hurtle, one can progress, or one can close up. The tools of managerial flexibility also include termination of operations. Which is it? March forward or end the attempt?
Trains around the nation continue to sell out. New equipment arrives, but no additional equipment is ordered to complete the modernization, for there is no funding available. Half a loaf service, the equivalent of balancing juice on your lap in lieu of dinner in the diner?
New executive blood on a Strategic Business Unit, is shown the door, and a seasoned railroader named as an interim replacement. A victory for those wishing to return to a sense of normalcy and stability or another curiousity, an anachronism, another spasm in a chaotic history?
I understand clearly what the rain outside symbolizes, because on balance, it is the same every year. Meteorologists make their livings detailing the daily forces, but the seasonal results are always the same. But train service for this nation, is the opposite situation. Because the details are there to sift through, admire or decry. But, for me, the overall picture is never clear.
I am at a loss to determine whether downsizing makes things more manageable, and creates a starting point for greater progress, or makes the system more easily discardable. Perhaps the final irony in this story while be a failed attempt to cut service sufficient to become profitable.
A doctor would not remove organs until the patient's health is restored, yet the trend is to do that in corporate America. While the Jury is still out on this approach, I fail to see how when every train loses money, cutting service improves the chance of existence without subsidy. It stems loss, but makes the patient less important, not more able to thrive.
Logic would dictate, that preservation of passenger service, and an end to government subsidy can only be accomplished if the obligation was returned to those from whom the burden was originally lifted... the now, profitable railroad industry. This notion of private enterprise being the solution, government largesse being the problem would dictate this step be taken. But no one advocates it. The continued ambivalence of our elected leaders, wishing to cut subsidy but not kill the service, is reflected in the surreal machinations of the orphan it conceived.
My rain gauge tells me how much rain has fallen. With America's rail passenger service, it is never clear whether the glass is half full, or half empty, let alone what season is coming.
Monday, November 11, 1995You could tell from the voices of the meterologists, and the way they sort of winked at one another. They spcke in terms of fronts and winds but a sort of knowing look invaded the reading of their prepared texts.
The day started with a resurgence of warm air. It was in the sixties and a gray haze hung over the land. By noon the air became breezy, and it began to drizzle. It felt like that first warm day of the Spring, some how out of place, but appreciated. It began to drizzle by 3:00 p.m., gently. The railroad in town had its problems. Trains that normally cruise through the area were stopping. The monstrous units and heavy but nearly always manageable tonnage were made vulnerable by the meek leaves. The lovely appendages of our trees that keep us cool in the summer with their forgiving shade were now, with the aid of a little moisture, rendering the great transportation juggernauts helpless. Trains stalled on the grades, slipping and sliding, waiting for helpers to get them going. At their last days before disappearing into mulch, the leaves were an impenetrable force against the trains' mighty movements.
At four it was time to take a walk. The wind was downright gusty now, and the sky was a sight to behold. Low clouds were racing from south to north as if being chased. Some big drops fell on my head as I walked, as first blood in the battle of the seasons about to take place in my neighborhood. The clouds racing away were the last delegation from the land of summer. Thoughts of backyard barbeques, afternoons at the beach, warm evening walks were being carried, no chased, away by these clouds. Because it was no longer their time, and they somehow knew it. Their time was done, and perhaps their departure overdue, hence the haste they displayed as they scampered away.
Like putting up shields before the battle the Weather Service started making pronouncements, announcing the battle of the seasons in their inimitable way. High wind warnings for the mountains of the west, gale warnings for the sea to the east, and severe weather alerts for us in between. Like an air raid warden, unable to stave off the battle, they tried to sound the alarm. While the seasons sometimes change like one glides through the plot of a novel, slowly and almost imperceptibly, this day would be like slamming the book closed and taking up a different one.
By now trains were setting off all the defect detectors in the neighborhood and stopping their trains. The swirling leaves were making these electronic geniuses apoplectic as trains passed them by. The Capitol Limited was delayed in town because of the other trains having their crews inspect their consists, but I only wondered what else the Capitol Limited would encounter as it climbed the Alleghanies this night.
Then at 7:15 p.m. it happened. Despite the stream of clouds from the south all day, this thing came from the west, in a straight line. It was the advance of the first meteorological marine brigade to take this beach head for the winter. The wind increased to the point where my sturdy house creaked as I ate dinner. Now the rain made staring across the street impossible, because you could not see that far. I felt like i was on a ship in the North Atlantic though I knew I was on firm ground. The battle seemed brief, though lasted an hour. Howling winds, dropping temperatures, plummeting as the barometer had done all day. It rained steadily as the lights in my house dimmed at times, threatening to give up for the night. The seasonal beach head seemed secure, but a second assault was coming.
At 10:00 p.m. the house shook with lightning and thunder. Like a Wagnerian trilogy, we were listening to the desperate refrain of summer's theme music in its death throes at the conclusion of the drama. It was amazing to hear the sounds of the battle above me in the darkness as the summer, dramatically, unwillingly, but inevitably was chased from the neighborhood. The battle was over by midnight.
At morning it was quite clear who had won it. There was an inch of snow on my lawn. The wind was blowing hard from the northwest as a weak sun shone down. While the weatherman spoke of rushing air to fill in a storm system, this was more like cold air, now liberated, running to inhabit the land it had been denied after months of being locked up in the north. I have never seen people walk slowly to recapture land, and so it is with air too, it appears. Visions of the haste to recapture lost land by those denied for a long period made more sense to me then air pressure differentials.
Trains that were due to be long gone at this hour were still on the Subdivision, hours late. Red signals, icey limbs encroaching on power lines and frozen switches made their trips across the state slow and difficult.
So now is the time to think of the bundled men sweeping out switches. Broken rails instead of sun kinks. Ice in air lines, locomotives idling all night instead of laying dormant, so that their internal warmth can keep them useful when called into action. Heavy coats and hats adorning train crews assembling their trains. Crews seeking the warmth of shanties, yard offices, and locomotives with good cab heaters, instead of sitting outside, under a tree, waiting for their trains to arrive. Hot cups of coffee served in lounges as one ponders the frozen land outside.
The battle was over. The calendar may have other notations, but the seasons changed last night. Like us all, the railroad makes its adjustments. For us all, we go on. It just takes us a little longer to get there now.
Wednesday, November 22, 1995As we gather around the table to feast
Upon turkey, potatoes and some things we like least,
Its time to consider for what it is we give thanks,
Lest this time go bye, by drawing mental blanks.
There are those we love, and those who love us,
As we sit at dinner, listening to family tales,
While turkey is served our minds may wander,
Because our thoughts are apt to flow,
Steam enwrapped sleepers on cold, damp nights.
Seas of hoppers, loaded with coal,
Lowly switchers, coursing through yards
News of mergers and all their perils,
(BN in Birmingham, I still have not sorted out,
A North Platte parade, three abreast
So give thanks to our favorite haunt,
Give pause to those trains we have lost,
Consider the trips still awaiting you and I,
Around the table smiles abound,
We have a passion that continues to abide,
We must also thank them one and all,
Sunday, December 3, 1995It's quiet now. And it's late. All I can hear is my car's engine running, now, in the general quiet, seemingly loud. I had not noticed it before. In the cold, way out here, it shudders every once in a while, but it does provide me the necessary warmth for me to linger this late.
It was quite the day. In my mind before I got here, I had hopes to see a number of things, and most of them showed up. The scheduled passenger trains, the intermodals, and coal trains. The foreign power was not as numerous as I had hoped, but there was all that commotion about those AC traction locomotives amongst the fans here. That was quite the surprise and I feel a small smile forming on my face even now as I remember that scene.
The fans had come from local haunts and a few from far away. The locals were happy to explain what we were seeing, to those of us who don't come here quite so often. And they told us local stories spanning the oral history from directions to the nearest convenience store, to the history of all the lines serving here, the motive power employed, to the time they had the great derailment outside of town. (Stories changed slightly depending upon with whom spoke with, but most of the ccounts were the same.)
I particularly enjoyed mixing with the people, who like myself, had come a fair distance to come here and see the trains. We learned together from the locals, enjoyed the instant comraderie parking here with a scanner in one hand and a camera in the other brings, and also exchanged information about our own local scenes. Yes, it was quite the day.
So now it's dark. The locals have gone home to eat dinner, warm up, and blend into the workaday world. Perhaps at work tomorrow, they will still be thinking of those BN units we saw, or get ready to tell their friends who did not make it this weekend, what they missed. They will likely pile it on a bit for emphasis.
I sit here in my car watching the silent rails, looking at the dark signals, waiting for something more. But the silence is welcome too. Despite the fun of swapping stories today, and enjoying the company, the solitude is fine. Most of my trackside ventures, even at home, are done alone. Often it's preferable. The music on the radio, the note taking, the personal thinking that solitude allows, broken up by the passage of trains is a prescription for restoring sanity, chipped away by the efforts required during the rest of the week.
I noticed that I was becoming at one with the driver's seat earlier, so strolled around the car to limber up dormant muscle. The cold air had iced over the puddles near my car from the spilled coke, and my breath could be seen in the night air. My ski jacket seemed to make a racket in the cold. The coffee in the thermos was still warm, but I knew I was fighting sleep. The good music on the radio gave way to talk, which is something I didn't need right now, so I killed it.
Somewhere out there trains are approaching this very spot. Do they have that weird car, unique locomotive or contain something that has not so far appeared today? Are they miles away, or bearing down on me, just minutes from this spot?
Wouldn't it be nice to have a model board in my car, to determine that all track is silent, or the Santa Fe warbonnets are just minutes away, and me about to leave, and miss them? No, I suppose not, because even though technological advances have improved the hobby, it would be like hunting for birds with a Star Wars weapon.
Sort of takes the fun out of it. So much of this hobby is being in the right place at the right time, that, while it is sometimes frustrating to learn about the one that got away, I think I prefer being beholden to good fates while watching. If everyone knew exactly when something neat was about to arrive, who would hang around like me, now, ever hopeful of seeing something terrific?
So part of this sentry duty, is patience. Part of this hobby is enjoying the full frosty moon, alone. Taking it all in, alone. While a lot can be said for the group discussions, you need also to appreciate the aloneness. I met my closest friends on earth trackside, and think of them often, and wish they were here, but I certainly don't feel alone out here. There are the tracks, the scanner looking for the next westbound, the love of a good car heater and some left over potato chips. The death certificate will likely not say "Sleep Deprivation Caused by Nocturnal Train Watching after Everyobdy Else Went to Sleep."
I have a good book to read, and a deep respect for the virtue of patience and the energy one can find in mere anticipation.
So dispatcher, I am ready. Bring them on! I have a front row seat, and I am not leaving for awhile. And should nothing go by, I have my thoughts to keep me warm. The scanner crackles. I am content.
Sunday, December 24, 1995It is cold out here tonight, but after all it is Christmas Eve. The ice on the ground, so early in coming this year, now seems appropriate. My sweater and jacket don't seem enough against the wind, so my hood goes up over my head. My wife tells me to keep my head covered in such weather, to keep the heat in. I guess that means there remains some fire inside.
The clouds hang low, spitting flurries. Lights on homes twinkle and are warmth givers. The locomotive terminal has 32 units on hand, about thirty more than normal. No one to operate them, no place to go, because Christmas is a sabbath for trains too. The units shudder (GE) and whine (EMD) in the cold as the local church bell rings, calling religionists to prayer and joyous celebration.
I am here to see this annual sight, a pilgrimage of locomotives and to walk along the Canal, in solitude. It is a time to think upon the year nearly over, and the one nearly ready to begin.
Here are GP30's still like they were last year, feeling Father Time breathing down their necks. Adjacent AC traction units, enormous beasts with lightning bolts under the windows, glisten with technology. GP30's when they fail have to be re-started. AC units are rebooted instead.
In the yard is a Santa Fe autorack, coupled to a CNW boxcar. Orphans of change. CNW didn't even get a namechange, just a swallowing up by a new owner. BN and Santa Fe could agree to merge, but riot come up with a name. 1995, another dizzying year. A restructuring of Amtrak by those who mouth words of support but withold meaningful succor.
The demise of the Interstate Commerce Commission also. What will civics teachers teach now, when they explain that railroad barony forced industry regulation, and now the barons are gone and all is well? Things to ponder on this night.
Also gone, NS steam trains. But now we read of Marlboro trains on every billboard in the nation. Two railroad friends lost their battle with AIDS, and are gone now too. I walk on a little further.
I have learned the cyber dimension of this passion, having met incredibly good friends on the Net. Folks who are out there looking for Cryotrans names, folks who have much to say about everything, folks I spend every other Tuesday with on GEnie, folks who email me. I am truly blessed. For losses, there are often gains.
1995. A year where current craziness spilled over, even into railroading as someone murdered a train in Arizona, making a major political statement by assassinating a sleeping car attendant. A year when the faltering Southern Pacific may finally be adopted by a richer neighbor.
1995. A year when the Broadway died, but double stack arrived. A year when I sat trackside at Dolton and watched the bottle train go by. A year when the new scanner antenna was mounted on my roof, to bring more of the local trackage into my den.
1995. A year when my lifetime love of that mountain was memorialized by a life time membership. A year when out of work Amtrak locomotives haul intermodal traffic to Texas. A year when things that end with MAC shake the earth regularly.
Three Class Ones in the West, perhaps soon two. And the shoe to drop in the East? The intermodal explosion ended, with not one TOFC trailer ordered to be built. No NS steam trains, no Broadway on that mountain.
1995. A year of dramatic changes. A year of wonderful trackside adventures as well.
As I walk back to my car, and shelter from the cold, men and women greet each other as they leave the church. Here, tonight pagentry, music and sincerity warm the world. And tomorrow, when young children open their presents, the child who picks up a box, unwraps it, unveils the model train, and whose eyes double in size will truly be blessed. For everyone of us out here watching trains, enwrapped as ever in our passion, together with our closest friends, will appreciate the reinforcements from the next generation. We have much to share. I look forward to meeting them at trackside.
At home now. I light a candle as a beacon of remembrance of the past. I light a candle for thankfulness for the wonderful things that have occurred and the glory of a family thriving and the security of oeloved lifetime friends. I light a candle for hope, that I may be fortunate enough to experience yet more in this life with the people in my life.
A candle for a peace universally adopted, for the hungry to be fed, the cold ones to be warmed, the rights of humans to be inviolate. A light flickers in the dark. A light to remember my Dad by.
Even the scanner has been quiet for hours. It is a holy night, and a silent one.