Monday, April 29, 2013

Railfan? What’s That?

    I grew up close to a railroad crossing and if I remember correctly, the sound of a steam locomotive whistle blowing a long, long, short, long warning (Rule 14 L on most railroads described in rule books with these symbols  ——  ——  -  —— ) before crossing Main street was the first outside-the-house sound I heard. Little wonder then that as I became old enough to wander around on my own that I’d wind up in the railroad yard watching trains as their crews shifted cars replacing empty cars with new loaded cars for the town’s industries.

    I spent many happy hours there talking to the train crews and to the men who would be unloading the cars — sometimes sand for the molders in the foundry or pig iron ingots to be melted in that foundry and poured into molds creating some useful product.

    I didn’t question why I enjoyed being there. It seemed natural for a boy to enjoy these things. Years later I analyzed the attraction and found some parallels.  Even though trains were being pulled by diesel electric engines instead of steam locomotives beginning in the early 1950s, the display of sheer power was part of the fascination. But it was not only the power, it was the almost magical containment of that power — a dynamic equilibrium between latent inertia and kinetic motion.

    It can be fairly equated with dynamite and poetry. A stick of dynamite, slit lengthwise and set on fire would simply burn - fast, but still just burn. It would not explode. It’s the containment that gives it its explosive power. Once the container can no longer contain the expanding gases the expansion bursts forth instantaneously.

    And with poetry it is the containment of words, ordinary words, which properly measured and restrained acquire a power that the individual words do not possess if expressed in prose.

    With trains, try to imagine the sight and sound of 3 or 4 diesel locomotives each having approximately 4,000 horsepower moving a train of 100 or more cars at a speed of 50 miles per hour or more confined between two ribbons of steel.

    THAT is contained power.
    THAT is the dynamic equilibrium.
    THAT is the attraction.

    The word fan is probably a shortened form of the word fanatic as is often applied to describe someone with any strong interest in an activity. The word buff is sometimes used but that is usually reserved for a police or fire follower. Aficionado was used by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises to describe a person who had aficion or extreme devotion to the sport of bull fighting.

    Railfan is probably the best word to describe an enthusiast of railroad operations — the sights, the sounds, the smells. Among the sights are the wayside signals the engineers need to know the meanings of to proceed safely into the next stretch of track. Learning to read the signals was a most satisfying accomplishment. It helped me know what was likely to happen next.

    Signals have a default indication until just before a train will come past that signal. If you know the default indication and some other indication is displayed, it is safe to conclude that another train will soon be there. Add to that knowledge a radio scanner and you will have a handy tool to assist in the train watching experience.

    Another sight that was enjoyable but is rapidly disappearing in this age of ubiquitous graffiti artists is the often colorful slogans adopted by the various railroads for their railcars back when there were hundreds of individual railroad companies. Some of the more entertaining were: Better by a Dam Site, Chattahoochee Industrial Railroad (CIRR), Be Specific, Ship Union Pacific Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), Southern Gives A Green Light to Innovation Southern Railroad (SOU), The Sole Leather Line Wellsville, Addison and Galeton (WAG), The Bridge Line to New England and Canada Delaware and Hudson (D&H), The Road to Paradise Strasburg (SRR), The Nickel Plate Road New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (NYC&St.L aka NKP).

    These days, railroads are just as likely to lease their rolling stock from lessors such as RBOX for boxcars or TTX for container carriers or UTLX for tank cars. The days of catchy phrases and company sponsored artwork are gone. Why spend the money to adorn your own equipment if its going to be obliterated by graffiti?

    Graffiti or not it can still be an enjoyable break from the routine to sit by the tracks and anticipate the arrival of the next fast freight on its way from somewhere to somewhere else.

Manheim PA looking west

Manheim, PA looking east

Manheim, PA looking east from Oak street

Lebanon, PA at East street looking at "High Green" for a westbound on track 2

Lebanon, PA at 8th street looking west at Clear signals at CP Wall interlocking

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