Why Watch Trains?

By John Haynes

The question has often been asked of me, "Why do you watch trains?" Curious people have inquired why I might spend my vacation chasing mile-long coal trains across central Nebraska instead of catching a plane to some warm, humid paradise. Ask this question to fellow railfan friend Jon Roma and he'll reply something along the lines of, "You went to central Florida, in August, and spent your time with a cartoon mouse. Who's the crazy one?" It's not that being a railfan is usual, necessarily, but I'd suggest it's no more crazy (or sane) than most other ways people choose to fill their spare time.

Railroads have been and continue to be vital arteries that connect city to city and ocean to ocean, ties that bind this nation together. Abraham Lincoln understood the inherent value of linking East and West, and the political and capital risks he took to build the first transcontinental railroad paid off. When the golden spike was driven at Promentory Point, there was a new link between the people and politics of Washington and Sacramento. It laid a foundation for post-war nation building. A multitude of cities and towns owe their very existence to the alignment chosen by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific as they rushed to build the first railroad accross the West.

So there is a historical appeal, for sure. The railroads themselves are a fascinating mixture of old meets new. The fact is that while the technology used by railroads has grown by leaps and bounds, in many ways things have changed very little in the last 150 years. For example, the Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 Challenger steam locomotive has been replaced by diesel-electric locomotives like General Electric's low-emission, microprocessor-controlled ES4400AC. Yet, even so, trains travel on the same 4 foot 8 1/2 inch gauge set of steel rails that they have for over a century. They are brought to a stop by air brakes that work in essentially the same way as the system designed by George Westinghouse in the nineteenth century.

Safely operating a railroad is no small order. From block signals to cab signals, train orders to track warrants, Automatic Train Stop to Positive Train Control, railroad operations are again an example of nineteenth century technology meets twenty first. It is very rewarding to understand the systems that prevent trains from occupying the same space at the same time, and to see them in use. The transition from wayside interlocking towers, where an operator controlled the switches and signals at a junction or crossing, to computer assisted dispatching, has been slow but steady. Today, single dispatching centers control tens of thousands of miles of track. These facilities, like the Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha, house dozens of dispatches who work in a large, darkened underground facility lit by the glow of the LCD screens that line the walls and show the location of hundreds of trains being methodically weaved around hundreds of other trains across the system. Cool? You bet.

In 1942 there were over 230,000 miles of track in the United States. Today approximately half that trackage remains in service, but the ton-miles transported by freight trains has tripled. Contrary to popular belief, the freight railroads have become a very healthy industry since deregulation in the 1980s. The Power River coal basin in northeastern Wyoming, for example, produces about 40% of the coal used to power the nation, and virtually all of this coal moves by train. The coals exits the wind-swept, barren Wyoming plains in a seemingly constant stream of mile-plus long trains pulled by some of the most technologically advanced and powerful locomotives ever built.

This speaks to one of the most satisfying aspects of watching trains: witnessing the intersection of nature and machine. Railroads pass through some of the most desolate, inhospitable, and beautiful places on the planet. Trains must cross the Mohave Desert, pass through tunnels under the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, cover the vast spaces of the Great Plains, and meander through sweeping curves around the Alleghenies. Great feats of engineering like the Moffat Tunnel and Horseshoe Curve mark the places were mankind has met nature in a dramatic way. Snapping a good photo often means hiking into a remote location and seeing the local wildlife along the way, and becoming familiar with the land and geography.

It's not all so cerebral, though: there is something inherently exciting about watching something big, moving fast. It's the sights, it's the sounds. Just as a racing fan can identify the make and model of a car by hearing the revving of an engine, a locomotive airhorn can be identified by the chord and timbre produced as air is forced through the chimes. There are a variety of paint schemes. Identifying the make and model of locomotives and other equipment. Photography. Modeling. Simulators. Meeting and interacting with other railfans, who are quite often just as crazy and lots more knowledgeable than you are. Understanding how the railroad works and why it work that way.

So there's at least a partial answer to the question at hand. It is not one particular thing that draws someone into an appreciation of railroads, and indeed there are countless other reasons people enjoy the hobby, but almost all railfans will agree on the following (just find one and ask them): railfanning is a bug that bites you, sponges away at your free time, and makes other people wonder what may have gone wrong. Once you're bitten, there's not much you can do about it except get trackside and enjoy the side effects. I can think of worse afflictions.

-- John Haynes, (c) 2003, 2017
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