Read Old Man Scanlon

Watching Trains

09 March 2009

For as far back as my memory goes, I'd crane and twist in my seat to look for a train as we passed railroad tracks on family car trips. Later, when I joined a roving gang of teen-aged bicyclists, I became more proactive. Amongst our other depredations we'd go to where I knew there were trains—Attleboro station and various bridges over the Northeast Corridor—and hang around until we saw one. As often happens, college, marriage, and work interfered with real life, and I did no serious train watching until the early 1980s, when I met, by a stroke of good luck, a Conrail freight train during my lunch-hour walk beside the Northeast Corridor in Mansfield. It was love at first sight when I saw and heard the throbbing Smurf-blue General Electric diesel, and insatiable train-lust seized me. I am pleased to report that after the initial infatuation passes it is possible for a man and his railroads to achieve a more mature relationship, one based on trust, mutual respect, open communication, and hard work.

You may be thinking, "Strange man, strange hobby," and you'd be close. The hobby may be strange, but it's certainly no more inimical to society than more mainstream pastimes, say, football or Nascar racing. As in any human endeavor, there are railfans who exhibit extreme behavior. They may take videos of local freight trains at 3:00 A.M. or drive hundreds of miles to see "hot train action," but the only thing inherently destructive about this is the amount of coffee and donuts they consume. Some towns which contain prime observation points have even provided parking and shelter facilities to attract and accommodate railfan tourists.

The number of people who watch trains for fun might be larger than you realize. We walk among you. There are at least enough to support actual paper-and-ink monthly magazines openly available at big-box bookstores. Years ago I had a remarkably pleasant feeling of "Hey, I'm not the only one" when I discovered Trains magazine at Borders; although now I suppose it's possible for anyone, armed with Google and a few choice keywords, to find that he's not alone in virtually any shameful predilection you'd care to imagine.

It will probably be no surprise that most railfans are men. I think train watching is ultimately a form of collecting, a throwback to our hunter-gatherer past, a primal, deep-seated force, competence therein being naturally selected over the generations. Yet, like my prowess at collecting lead wheel-balancing weights from the edges of Massachusetts roads, train watching probably did little to attract either of my wives. It may in fact have been maladaptive.

Some railfans specialize in freight trains, others in passenger trains. Some are railroad employees who just can't get enough. Many of us are photographers; a camera observed near railroad tracks is a fairly reliable field mark, and a video recorder on a tripod is a foolproof one. Portable police scanners identify hardcore railfans. We generally recognize each other at the tracks, and often talk. There is no reliable identifying characteristic of the model railroaders in the ranks, but that's not really important; probably the vast majority of train watchers were, or still are, modelers. I was one myself at a tender age, when my overheated imagination conjured a grandiose model layout whose construction would have overflowed the entire cellar, far outstripped my fiscal resources, and required way more time and mechanical skill than I could muster even today. For me, the obvious solution was to abandon modeling and not attempt to recreate what I could see full-size all around the country.

The train watcher can hunt down an amazing variety of useless information. He can indulge in the sheer joy of pursuing knowledge, and what could be better than acquiring knowledge so esoteric, yet accessible, that it marks him as an insider amongst the outsiders in the whole rest of the world? There are railroad reporting marks, occupational vocabulary and slang, techniques of operation, routes and construction practices; geography, with the romance of far places; history, and nostalgia for the age of steam. For locomotives there are road numbers, identifying characteristics, specifications, operating principles, and provenances. Railfans can tell you, for every locomotive of a small railroad, its date of manufacture, terms of service at previous owners' railroads, paint schemes, equipment upgrades, and overhauls. This is very much like the array of knowledge sports fans accumulate, and continues the tradition of automobile identification, an art practiced by every American male not actually a Communist until it became impossible to distinguish the plethora of Asian cars.


The pursuit of cheap esoterica is not, however, the chief thrill of train watching; it's more visceral than that. It comes when I'm thirty feet away from a diesel engine so heavy and powerful that the ground shakes and my diaphragm vibrates. It comes from the shock when I recognize an actual female form amongst the eye-numbing sameness of a mile-long freight train vandalized by endless graffiti comprising obscenities and noms de guerre in bizarrely distorted spray-paint fonts. It comes when a pair of random teenagers (not unlike myself nearly a half century ago, except that virtually their entire undershorts are exposed) ask me to use their cell phones to photograph them at trackside. It comes from seeing fathers bring their small children to watch trains. Most of all it comes from bringing my own grandchildren to the tracks, huddling with them as they cover their ears so their heads won't explode when an Acela screams by us at 150 miles per hour, Doppler-shifting horn warning us back, bow wave buffeting us.