Romance Of The Rails

I like trains.

Like most little boys, I grew up loving trains. Unlike many adults, and unlike most of the childhood things which amused me, I never lost the love of them. I like taking train trips, even if only half hour commuter trips, like watching those pull up to the platform, only feet away, don’t mind the delay caused by having to stop at a road crossing and wait for them to pass through carrying their cargoes of oil. Potash. Coal. Grain. Imported dollar store crap from China. Autos. You name it.

I grew up in Canada, only a couple of blocks from the CP Rail mainline between Toronto and Montreal. We could hear every train pass by; from the yard of my public school, we could see them chugging by behind the houses across the street.The line hauled new cars and pickups from the GM factories nearby to dealers here, there and everywhere, and in turn pulled in boxcars full of parts by the hundred, day in, day out.  By junior high, I was at a school right along the same rail line; for gym we’d often run cross-country right alongside the tracks. When a Detroit via Toronto freight rumbled by, I was a bit slower than usual… not that that mattered, I usually was bringing up the rear anyhow!

My dad and I had model trains, and had a big table in the spare room in the ’70s, put some track on it. We never did quite get the layout complete, and we had differing ideas of the types of trains we wanted on it. My dad loved vintage steam engines and toyish cars. I wanted diesels like I saw on the rails by our house, and authentic freight cars. It mattered little. It brought him and I together when I was a youth and tween, something not a whole lot of things did.

The appeal, I can’t completely explain. The power of them is overwhelming. The mystery too. What’s in that boxcar? How about that tanker? And where’s it going? The multitude of railroads and colors , at least when I was young was fascinating as well. While I stood and watched CP trains and their bright red engines (with red and white striped noses and an odd, oh-so-’70s black and white logo on the end of the long hoods) they’d pull along freight cars from everywhere. The rusty red boxcars of Santa Fe, Southern, Missouri Pacific. Yellow Union Pacific ones. The orange Illinois Central and bold yellow and blue Chessie System ones were particular favorites of mine. And the appeal of being able to buy realistic little 1/87th size miniatures of all them to have go round in the bedroom made it so much cooler still.

I was reminded of that a few weeks back when President George H.W. Bush died. His body was taken to its final resting place, at his library in College Station, Texas, by a train led by a locomotive painted in his honor. Union Pacific #4141 (number picked because he was the 41st president) wound its way along the rails from Houston for several hours, while people lined the streets and tracks, paying their respects for one last time. It was said to be very appropriate, even though no president since Eisenhower nearly five decades earlier had been carried to his funeral on the rails, because George Sr. was said to love trains, and particularly the big, western carrier, Union Pacific. They said they were honored to have that privilege and painted up the huge, 210 ton EMD locomotive in blue and silver tones to mimic Air Force One. This was in contrast to their normal locomotives which are bright yellow with red lettering.

It looked surprising, even for non-railfans who live in the southwest and see the yellow UP trains rumble by daily, but it wasn’t the first time railroads did something unusual with their paint schemes to honor the country.

Back in 1976, the U,S. was abuzz with patriotic fever inspired by the Bicentennial. And railroads, so much a part of the country’s 200 year history, decided to share that enthusiasm. A couple of years before, the Seaboard Coast Line, a railroad that primarily served East Coast cities from Chesapeake Bay south to Florida, noticed it had a General Electric engine (as a sidebar, it might surprise many that GE is one of the world’s biggest producers of diesel fuel burning locomotives) numbered 1776 and decided to gussy up its paint. In place of the normal mainly black and white paint the company used, it painted #1776 in a bright red, white and blue scheme with stars on the red and blue stripes and a large presidential seal fastened to the side. Soon others followed suit- Illinois Central (which kept the corporate orange and black on the nose but also had blue and red stripes on an otherwise white engine numbered 1776), Grand Trunk, Santa Fe… soon over 20 different rail lines had engines honoring the country and flag. Boston and Maine, a relatively small rail line, painted 9 diesels patriotic colors! Erie-Lackawanna painted an engine #3638 in their normal design but with red white and blue replacing their normal mainly gray, with a dull maroon stripe. They did that in 1976… even though later that year they went out of business and were “enveloped” by Conrail.

I’ve never met George W. Bush, needless to say, but I always figured I could always have a good talk with him because we both love baseball. Likewise, I never met his father, George H.W. I didn’t agree with all his policies while he was president, but I bet I would’ve liked chatting with him. He did, after all, love trains.

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