Have You Read??? Reader’s Blog no. 5

The train left Kamloops behind in its push up the western slope of the Rockies out of Vancouver.

Dusk had overtaken, a light snow was falling, and minimal light from the train and the green signals falling to red in monotonous fashion along side the track provided a glow in the end dome car that bordered on the ethereal. Like a space vehicle In twilight zone. I inhaled the moment, and prayed it never got old.

Ahead lay Jasper and a return to the world of heavy railroading on the Canadian National, and four days hence, Toronto. In between, the breadth of Canada stretched out over a river of commerce. Many, many freight trains bucked in both directions on a single track railroad, CN’s bellcow, sucking up track space in an endless competition, bouncing from siding to siding at two-way meets, orchestrated by train dispatchers faraway.

Well, not this trip.  A few days prior to departure, Fred Frailey, Trains columnist extraordinaire, had forerun the annual foray of our affinity group, the Moonlighters. Always one to get a jump, he had boarded an earlier train on this very same route across Canada. He had endured a trip he deemed unacceptable. And he proceeded to deem it in print. The arrival of new oil business on top of normal traffic growth had nearly plugged the system. The good food, the wintry scenery with a wolf baying at the train outside of Saskatoon, the camaraderie among brave souls riding in the Canadian winter—all mattered for naught as he focused on the schedule. The train was 18 hours or so late, and the uncertainty of waiting on a siding for the passage of yet another intermodal train annoyed. The references to a “third world” operation completed his grumble.

In Montreal, there was a stirring inside the CN bureaucracy that reached the top. Honor was at stake.

At departure time for the Moonlighters came the miracle. Unannounced, our train was given the all-clear to highball across the continent without interference, a priority of great cost usually reserved for royalty or UPS. All efforts to juggle arrangements in Toronto to accommodate a 14-hour normal late arrival—dinner reservations, hotels, late arrivals, onward air travel, were essentially wasted. Beaming smiles all round. All Hail the train that ran on time.

The following year, without Fred’s prompting, the similar occurred. Bang, right on time. The mighty pen had vanquished the timetable.

When next I encountered Mr. Frailey, a friend, I could hardly contain my exuberance. “Fred,” I said, “you’ve ruined my life. I’ve ridden trains in 30 countries, for uncountable years, and always, always, the defining element has been the dynamic tension from conjecture about when we would arrive, and would we be On Time.”

“ I might as well have stayed home and watched golf on teevee.”

Unrepentant, Fred soon retired from Trains, leaving the Moonlighters to fend for themselves, but he’s still riding and writing, and with the world now flooding with railroad announcements, I called him up. His knowledge of passenger trains in the U.S is unmatched, and he is the author of Twilight of the Great Trains, the definitive work on passenger trains leading up to their demise and absorption into Amtrak, and a current book of love, Last Train to Texas. I’ve made both available at the Eiland Center Library.

Fred has the soul of a train dispatcher, and some of the equipment. He travels with a device allowing him to monitor discussions of operating personnel tuning in on conductors and dispatchers. He knows how many minutes a train is behind. He uses his knowledge to try and maintain a modicum of control that most of us surrender while we look for the wolf. Often, for instance, he will exit a train miles from civilization and jump into a waiting cab he has hailed in a rush to an obscure airport. Kiddingly, I call him Flag Stop Fred.

My call was prompted by a series of developments affecting passenger train service that is being restored with the projected fading of Covid 19. It seems like everybody woke up on May 1, checked to see that the pandemic was on the run, pulled out their travel planning guides and started looking around corners. The problem remained that the all-clear hadn’t been sounded for the usual suspects among the purveyors of travel, i.e. tourist countries, cruise ships and airplanes. In the domestic realm, Amtrak, a generally overlooked resource, offered a travel alternative. As a former railroad consultant, I thought I’d bring you up to date.

First, service received a little notoriety because of its association with Amtrak Joe, a.k.a. the President of the United States, going back to his days of commuting daily between Washington’s Capitol and his home in Wilmington, Del.

Then Amtrak announced the return of full service on its long-half passenger trains, many of them with appeal to attractive tourist sites like Glacier, Glenwood Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. Later, it announced the return of the dining cars and cooked on-board meals to two-night trips, bringing a money-saving experiment (thankfully) to a partial end.

Then, Amtrak presented a long-awaited plan for future expansion with a proposed budget cost of $78 billion over 15 years. It focused on new medium range services, mainly filling in service gaps in the eastern U.S.

Closer to home, Amtrak took another step in adding services in Virginia, and the state continued to embrace rail solutions to its transportation problems. Virginia?? The state that 50 years ago wouldn’t borrow money to improve its roads. Mud flaps r us!

Specifically, Amtrak would acquire the section of Norfolk Southern between Salem and Christiansburg and add it to the extension via Roanoke and Lynchburg that attaches to the Northeast Corridor. Parents of Virginia Tech students need no longer ferry their progeny on I-81 between the Northeast and Blacksburg.

Norfolk is in the future, so, for Sunnyside, options are at its doorstep.

What to make of these modest improvements? I asked Fred for his opinion. Many railroad observers are skeptical of present efforts, thinking Buffalo will be back first. Fred, a railroad buff but a gruff realist, said he sided with the show-me group but lives on hope that better service including better food can produce a revival. A look at the past provides perspective.

Twilight first. It is an in-depth look at the passenger train industry on the cusp of its great collapse in the Fifties and Sixties as the interstate highway and the airplane teamed up to take its markets. It was finished off when the Post Office discontinued the mail cars. Different companies took various approaches, but ended up in the same place, and bailed out when the government agreed to take over the business in exchange for continued access for some trains. Born in a forced march of retreat, Amtrak has suffered ever since, both in terms of service and also as a necessity in public minds. It also loses money. Some of you probably rode a train when you were growing up, but not since. Newer generations, not at all. A fundamental flaw is that Amtrak uses the same tracks as the freight operators, and its claims on operating space collide with the plans of the freight owners. This flaw is addressed in the new legislation but is far from resolved.

This book will provide you with details of individual trains, viewing them as living personalities beyond their physical assets. It can stir your memories. The stories of how individual owners coped with retreat as the colors were struck is part of lore. Close your eyes, ride a train, sip some wine, and peep over your dining car menu for a sighting of Cary Grant.

After that taste of the past, Dear Reader, try a more modern work from the same author. That would be Last Train to Texas, a collection of columns and blogs that appeared in Trains over the last two decades. The short vignettes are easy to read, and cover the railroad waterfront. During his time at Trains, he was a man on wheels, fully engaged riding trains across and up and down the continent, satisfying his infinite curiosity and sense of adventure.

There’s a Chaucerian flavor to Fred’s writing, underlying a notion that each and every place has a story to tell. His job is to find it. The Nun’s Priest Tale would fit nicely as a chapter in his book, right after The Saga of P*sser Bill, about the foul-mouthed, whiskey-belching tyrant who was vice president of operations at the Burlington Northern and was featured in an ode penned by a dispatcher in Montana. I dare you to read it and not chuckle.

The book is a short history of US. railroading in the last 40 years, covering events like the meltdown of the Union Pacific, which shut down a key rail yard in a fit of hubris after a merger, and brought a mighty network to a halt. The Mother of All Traffic Jams.

He can add a feel to the mundane and does in Night Train to Nowhere. “Midnight in Staunton, Virginia, on a summer week night so quiet you can almost hear your pores sweat in the humidity…tonight’s He can add a feel to the mundane, train Z631 will operate  over what had once been the original Chesapeake & Ohio main line but is now the Richmond & Allegheny Division of the Buckingham Branch Railroad.”

And there is the iconic Last Train to Texas about a part of south Texas where nobody ever goes. “At the time, someone said it would be a cold day in hell when Texas-Pacifico (TP) made money with this pathetic loser. Actually, I think the someone was me. The track was impassable, very few customers remain, and all were near San Angelo in the north end….It is today a cold day in hell. Hydraulic fracturing started south of San Angelo, in precisely the locale of the oil boom of the 1920’s, and it is happy days all over again.”

Before I hang up, I ask Fred what train he would recommend that a Sunnysider ride. Fred has good words for the Florida-bound Silver Meteor, the Washington-Chicago Capital Limited and even the Cardinal, which passes close by through the New River Gorge. That’s in the East. Come on Fred. Oh, hands down, his favorite is the Auto Train, from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida. His take: great service, excellent food, pretty good scenery in light, but pay up and get the big compartment. It’s worth every penny.

Jim Hanscom Sunnyside May, 2021

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