Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why Do I Do This?

It's a question I ask myself on an irregular but fairly frequent basis. Is this the best use of my finite time on earth? There are so many other pass times that seem more "normal" or common. Of course I play golf on occasion, obviously I am intrigued by computers or I wouldn't be blogging, and I have other interests as well. I'm lucky enough to have a job I really enjoy and a wife who is willing to put up with my quirks.

It goes without saying that this is an unusual hobby. Mrs. L4T and son never let me forget the time we were parked at a crossing west of Wadena, waiting for a train to show up, and a local resident slowly passed by, pausing to ask me what we were doing and if we needed any help. When I answered that I took train pictures as a hobby and was waiting for a train, he deadpanned "Well, I remember when I saw my first train too". Just the way he said it, and the way it has evolved as a family legend, never fails to stir up a laugh around our house. It says a lot about my family that they were even willing to sit at a crossing with me waiting for a train to show up.

One of my main motivations for going trackside and for watching for railroad developments during my travels throughout the state, is curiosity. I still get excited every time I see a headlight down the tracks.

You never know when you will see something you have never seen before, or something that is new, or something that is old that you may seldom if ever see again. Or you might see something that is very common or ordinary now, but might become less so sooner that you think. I would put Cascade Green SD's, unpatched SD70MAC's, and maroon DM&IR units all in the category of things that we took for granted not that long ago, but find rare now. It's already been a few years since the last Dash 9 in H2 paint rolled off the assembly floor.
While we now think "Oh, it's just another 4000 or 5000 series Dash 9", someday we will be chasing the final few remaining pumpkins, thinking about that one shot we never took the time to get. We're recording history as it is made.

But just as important to me, I go because I am attracted by the expereience of high-horsepower diesel engines giving their all to move multi-thousand ton trains. The feeling of a heavy train passing at speed and the amount of power that is in play can't be duplicated anywhere else I'm aware of.

Perhaps jumbo jets would impart the same feeling but they are kind of rare in my part of the world and the ones I do see are only dots high in the sky. At that distance you just don't sense the combination of power and speed.

The power and speed are only part of the attraction. The passing trains also convey the vitality of America to me. When I see a coal train pass at 50 mph and think of the number of similar trains that pass by each day, I am awed by the level of activity on our society. The amount of energy in that train multiplied by many similar trains loaded each day is simply amazing. And just what are we shipping around the nation that requires multiple Z trains each day through Wadena? Unit trains of grain are a common sight, 100+ cars that each hold 4500 bushels of wheat or corn. Over 10,000 tons of grain, passing by on a regular basis. That's enough wheat to make at least 10,000,000 loaves of bread-2 loaves for every man, woman, and child in in Minnesota, from a single train across the Staples Sub, a move which is repeated multiple times each week. That makes me say "Wow".

Vehicle trains-have you ever considered the fact that a single vehicle train, of, let's say, 50 auto racks, each loaded with 15 new vehicles, carries a sticker price of almost $2 million? That is a whole lot of money. And intermodals carrying containers that have travelled across the sea, what are they carrying? However you feel about imported merchandise, we as Americans obviously have an insatiable appetite for it given the number of stack trains that traverse the Staples Sub each day. What could possibly be inside all those 20' and 40' boxes? Clothing, computers, and coffee pots, Timexes and toys, all manner of items destined for Wal Marts, Target's, and Costco's across America. I always wonder what is in that single container that I select for some odd reason. Could it be appliances? Or is that one packed with auto parts, or shoes, or zippers? Maybe today's container of choice is loaded with TV's. I'll never know, but that doesn't stop me from wondering.


I see a lot of beauty during the time I spend trackside as well. Waiting gives the chance to observe wildlife, weather, and the movement of the sun from hour to hour and season to season. One of the things I hope to gain from whatever hobby I choose is relaxation, and railfanning comes through in most cases. And on the rare occasion it doesn't, it's usually because it is so busy or something so unusual is happening that it is better than relaxation.

I've also had the chance to make friends, both virtual and actual, as a fan. I'm sure some of you that read this have met me, and others have had email correspondence, but even for those who I haven't had any interactions with, I feel like I share something with you as part of the "foamer" community.


I share your triumphs and your disappointments through the magic that is the internet. Your work serves as an inspiration and sometimes, frustration to me, given that I will never achieve what many of you have. I continually learn that I can be at once envious while at the same time, happy for your achievements. MN Chris, I can simultaneously admire the shots you got during your big snowfall yet be frustrated that I will probably never have the opportunity to come even close to your experiences that day in April. Thanks to all of you for everything you have shared and what I've learned as a result.

And last but most, part of it is respect for the men and women who make it all happen. From the engineers and conductors running trains in all weather, to the signal maintainer who gets called to New York Mills on a Tuesday night just as he was getting home from work to repair a crossing gate that won't go up, to the dispatchers who juggle trains, MOW windows, and balky equipment, to the Fort Worth mechanical desk trying to troubleshoot an extremely complex locomotive by radio, I have respect for all of them moving the freight in a safe and cost effective manner.

My grandpa and my father-in-law both worked their entire careers on the railroad and that is one of the reasons I became interested in trains. I've had jobs that were demanding and important to the safety and comfort of people who didn't know I was doing what needed doing to help the public stay safe and comfortable, and I think I can understand how railroaders must sometimes feel-underappreciated.

So, the answer to the question "Why do I do this?" is a lot longer than I intended. But just trying to answer the question has made me think about why I do it, which has reminded me of a lot of pleasant experiences. If you have stuck with me this far, congratulations, and I'm sorry it took so long. Next time I plan on getting back to something more sensible, but I needed to get that off my chest.

Still looking4trains,

Jim

1 comment:

trainspotterusa said...

Nice piece of writing. Like you I ask myself the same question quite often. In fact I'm doing it right now.