Clearly, you’re an Everyday Enthusiast; after all, you’re exploring theTUNDRA. But, at some point in your life, in an earlier time period, we bet that you were really into passenger trains, or freight trains, or steam locomotives or hanging out at the train station, or at the very least staring at the subway. The point is, you were likely a Train Enthusiast and until further notice, you’re not allowed to protest. Either you played with a model train or train board game as a child, or you marveled at the determination of the steam locomotives in the book, “The Little Engine That Could.” Perhaps you took a passenger train ride with a diesel locomotive that satisfied all of your senses at once, from the rhythmic sound of the railway tracks, to the scent of the fuel to the feeling of shaking the friendly conductor’s hand as he took your ticket.
Come on, admit it, the words “train” and “railway” and “steam locomotive” inspire a sense of nostalgia for an earlier time period that justifies calling yourself a fan of rail transport. Maybe you’ve even fantasized about working for a ministry of railways? Most American towns have a railway company that serves a variety of purposes, primarily public transport such as light rail and rapid transit systems and a subway, and private transport, like freight trains. Trains and railway companies are a huge part of our lives. And think of pop culture, from movies like Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL in 1926 and 1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN to movies from more recent years - 2013’s SNOWPIERCER and 2016’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Then there’s the pop band Train’s “Drops Of Jupiter” and the TV show PETTICOAT JUNCTION. All of them helped cement images like steam engines, steam locomotives and diesel locomotives into our collective public consciousness.
Railway hobbyists take many forms – there’s traveling by rail vehicle, studying railway history like books about steam locomotives and diesel locomotives, and model railroad building, just to name a few. If you’re a scale model Train Enthusiast, you go to model train conventions. If train travel is your thing, you’ve already memorized the most iconic railway company, Amtrak’s national routes so you study the Chicago and Northwestern train schedule just for fun, even though you live in Denver. If you’re a Train Song Enthusiast, you karaoke to songs like Gladys Knight And The Pips’ “Midnight Train To Georgia”, a tune from one of the best time periods for music, the early 1970s.
But if you still insist that none of the above applies to you, read on. You just might discover that you’re a closet Train Enthusiast. Maybe you just love your daily subway ride? If you think about it, from transporting agricultural goods to transporting people, train culture is woven into every period of American history. And iconic railway imagery, like classic photos of steam locomotives, are fundamental to who we are as a society, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.
Come on, hop on the Train Enthusiast train to explore the myriad ways that they’re part of our lives.
One of the Doobie Brothers’ best tunes, they name check the Illinois Central railway company and Southern Central Freight railroad, two famous American train companies. Long trains have been runnin’ for longer than you think. The first train tracks appeared all the way back in the 6th century BC in ancient Greece, where paved trackways transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinth. Later, in Egypt, the Romans built the same type of trackways.
Wooden railway infrastructure started to appear in the 1720’s and the first American railway was built in Lewiston, New York in the year 1764. The real game changer, though, were the first steam engines – the first locomotive was built in England in 1804. Soon, it made its way state side and, from that point forward, rail transport played a huge part in U.S. history. America’s railroad fascination launched with the founding of the first passenger and freight train line in the country – the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in 1827. As of that year, the passenger train had left the station. Railway travel dominated the industrial revolution in the north east from 1810 – 1850 and the settlement of the west, from 1850 to 1890. And in the Midwest, particularly the heavily settled corn belt, over 80% of farms were built within five miles of a railway. It’s no mystery why shipping grain, hogs and cattle via railway led to economic and geographic growth and stability.
Which reminds us of a song from more recent years, “Mystery Train,” a classic Jerry Garcia song that just chugs along like, well, a freight train. The leader of the classic American band the Grateful Dead, Jer Bear had a real thing for rail transport. Railway lyrics and imagery pop up in over 40 of their songs. “He’s Gone” includes the words, “Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track.” “So Many Roads” features Jerry singing about steam engines - “Thought I heard that KC whistle moaning sweet and low.” And “Casey Jones,” a song about a passenger train, starts off with a bang: “Driving that train, high on co--” - actually, let’s leave that one right there.
This 2007 rail transport flick features Russell Crowe, Christian Bale and the many, scenic splendors of the Southern Railroad in the United States. This movie from one of our most majestic time periods is so pretty to look at, it brings to mind America’s many gorgeous national parks. One of the greatest ways to experience these majestic national treasures is by America’s railroads – otherwise known as Amtrak, which, as “America’s Track,” is deeply rooted in railway history.
Railway infrastructure helped create and promote American National Parks. Railroads from that time period realized that the gorgeous scenery along their routes was great for marketing. Destination travel became an important part of the marketing strategy. For example, Union Pacific dubbed itself the “World’s Pictorial Line” in the 1890’s and encouraged passengers to enjoy the views right outside their windows for a reasonable fare.
The Grand Canyon Railway, a 65-mile, two-hour journey to the Grand Canyon on a vintage steam train that boards in Williams, Arizona – hands down one of the most fantastic ways to experience some of America’s most awe-inspiring geography in a way that’s reminiscent of a more innocent time period. The great thing about railway travel is that it’s one of the most affordable and enjoyable ways to spend time with family. There’s ample time for catching up and there’s low broadband in remote areas, so there’s less chance of being distracted, which enables the whole family to focus on the beautiful countryside. On the other hand, there’s more time for disagreements. But hey, what’s a family trip without a skirmish or two?
Ah, Big Sky country. The American West. See parts of the U.S. the way that Lewis and Clarke did, but not on horseback (unless you’re an Equestrian Enthusiast, that is), via diesel locomotive.
The Empire Builder features a giant diesel engine locomotive that goes from Chicago’s Union Station all the way west along the original route of the Great Northern Railway, ending in Glacier National Park in Montana. And, to travel all the way from Chicago to LA, there’s the California Zephyr. Amtrak says that this route is one of its most scenic. In 2018, the California Zephyr carried a 418, 2013 passengers.
Even if we weren’t an LA-based company, we’d be singing the praises of one of the most quintessential and stunningly beautiful train rides in the world, the classic Pacific Surfliner, a 350-mile passenger train service serving people who live on the Southern California coast between San Diego and San Luis Obispo – or tourists seeking what is 100% a joy ride – way more fun than road transport. We’ve taken this train several times and let us just say - it sure beats sitting in gridlock on the 405 or the 101 or the 10 or the 5 – or any of the formerly quiet suburban streets in LA that Waze has singlehandedly turned into mini-highways.
California’s the third largest state in the Union, remember? So we’ll wrap our coverage of great West Coast train rides by mentioning the Coast Starlight, which travels along the coast between Los Angeles and Seattle. The first park along the way is the stunning Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, followed by Paramount Ranch (unfortunately, the 1927 sets were destroyed in the recent wildfires but are being quickly constructed – only in LA, baby), through the Cascade Mountains and Crater Lake National Park, and ending in Seattle. The famous Mt. Rainier National Park is just a 45 minute drive from there.
Amtrak’s American Great National Parks trip is a 13-day train tour of five of the most-beloved national parks: Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches and Canyonlands, and the fare is quite reasonable. From touring Jackson Hole to Old Faithful, this trip may not change your life, but it will definitely enhance the way you perceive it. Three words: sign us up.
Lastly, for Train Enthusiasts who really love exploring theTUNDRA, there’s the Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic trip, which starts in Anchorage, Alaska. From there, it’s a gorgeous, scenic four hour ride that ends at the Kenai Fjords National Park, featuring snow-capped Kenai Mountains – and the occasional Grizzly bear.
This is definitely not an American classic, but we love it. Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito conspire to kill DeVito’s overbearing mother by…wait for it…throwing her off a train. One of the best movies from one of our favorite time periods, the 80s.
Attempted murder off the back of a caboose has nothing to do with the intersection of Agriculture and trains, but now that we have your attention, let’s get into it.
For a time period spanning the last 200 years, railroads and farmers have been critically intertwined. Railways also connect America to other parts of North America. In fact, one in every 10 planted acres in the U.S. feeds people in Mexico and Canada, which, incidentally, is home to one of our favorite singer songwriters, Gordon Lightfoot, whose tune “Canadian Railway Trilogy” includes the unforgettable words “they saw an iron road runnin’ from sea to sea.” Actually, if you don’t mind, we’re going to take a 7:05 minute break to listen to the whole thing.
Ah, that was nice. Also, whatever happened to Gordon Lightfoot?...
In 2018, railroads moved 2.4 million carloads of fertilizers and plastics, nearly 1.5 million carloads of agricultural goods, and about 1.6 million carloads of food products. Keep in mind, that was 2018, after the rise of trucking. In the time period before road transport took over, trains were even more influential in the transportation of agricultural goods, enabling farmers to cheaply access markets miles away from home. Some professors theorize that 66% of the dramatic increase in farmland in the Midwest in the 1850’s was directly linked to the building of the railroad, which gave farmers direct access to new markets. We’re going to go out on a limb here and take the position, “we agree.”
The White Stripes cover of the Blind Willie McTell song “Lord Send Me An Angel” refers to “Amtrak yellow,” which everyone knows is a shade that’s also known as “Safety Yellow.” Ok, literally no one knows that, or cares, and btw, the modern Amtrak logo doesn’t have yellow in it. Regardless, Amtrak is the only major American passenger rail company and still very much a part of the way we get around.
Founded in 1971 as an amalgamation of a few struggling private companies, it’s a quasi-public corporation that has over 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, using 21,400 miles of track. It gets over $1.4 billion federal dollars annually and about 31 million people use Amtrak every year.
That number used to be a lot higher as rail travel has changed over time. Approximately 100 years ago, 98% of all commercial inter-city travel was by rail vs. today’s numbers, with a mere 1% of families taking their vacations by train. That said, Amtrak has evolved with the times and has had several wins of late. For example, the launch of the Washington-New York Metroliner service reduced travel between the two cities to under three hours. The launch of the Acela Express in 2000 got huge publicity and ridership gains. Additionally, the U.S. is universally recognized in the industry as having the best freight railroads in the world, with productivity rising 172% between 1981 and 2000.
Here are some fun Amtrak facts. The busiest Amtrak station is Penn Station in New York City, where over 600,000 passengers travel every day – and the majority of those traveling are commuters, not tourists. Speaking of NYC, we bet you didn’t know that the actual name isn’t Grand Central Station, it’s Grand Central Terminal. Yoouuur’e welcome.
Good ol’ THOMAS AND FRIENDS is an iconic British-American kid’s TV series featuring talking model trains. For a time, it was narrated by the Beatles timekeeper, Ringo Starr, appearing in the U.K. in 1984 and in America in 1989. The series took off quickly, becoming a global sensation before you could say, “aaaalllllllll aboard!”
Of course, model railway building has been a big part of childhood for over 150 years with the earliest models appearing in the 1840’s. The world’s oldest working model railway is a model of the U.K.’s Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, dating back to 1912. There are many different ways to power modern railway models, from three rail electricity to overhead line to battery power to live steam to internal combustion. The Lionel Corporation was the most famous model train company, operating from 1900 to 1995, but it went bankrupt, in part because the model train industry got edged out by video games. It now operates as Lionel, LLC. Call us old school, but we’d take playing with miniature trains, conductors and trees over shooting fake criminals in Grand Theft Auto any day.
The National Model Railroad Association is down to about 19,000 members and the average age is 64. In other words, it’s a hobby that is slowly dwindling. But there’s still a huge, influential expo called The Model Railway Show that happens every year in England for all of you railway model aficionados out there.
This detective novel by Agatha Christie was adapted into an Oscar nominated 1974 film of the same name. Hollywood being Hollywood, it was remade in 2017 with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role of detective Hercule Poirot. If Agatha Christie was alive today, she might say, “you could drive a train through the empty character development and plot holes in the remake.” But we don’t bring up that poor retread for the purpose of trashing a movie, we bring it up as a way of transitioning into the topic of trains being used to transport the dead.
Throughout history, “funeral trains” have carried coffins or caskets to their places of internment, with the first processions running in London, England in the 1850’s. They carried not only many bodies on the trip, but mourners too. Over time, funeral trains fell out of favor as a way of transporting commoners’ coffins, morphing into a symbolic way to transport the bodies of famous heads of state, as a way for people to come out en masse and pay their respects. Winston Churchill’s body famously traveled throughout England via train in 1965. In the U.S., coffins of Presidents have traveled by train too, including Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 and President George H.W. Bush in 2018.
We think that Ozzy Osbourne, who famously sings “Crazy Train,” should ride a funeral train too, whenever he’s ready to float off into the great unknown. Actually, we’re pretty sure that, somehow, that guy’s going to live forever. Same goes for Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who sing songs featuring trains like “Silver Train” and “Love Train.” And let’s not forget Rod Stewart’s spiritual “People Get Ready”…OK, we’ll stop now.
This 1978 British film is a fictional account of the Great Gold Robbery, which took place in London in 1855, when three boxes of gold were stolen on a train bound for Paris. Written by Michael Crichton and starring the great Sean Connery, the even greater Donald Sutherland and the wonderful Lesley-Ann Down, it’s a fantastic and fun depiction of an actual European train heist.
Railway travel has been a huge part of the way Europeans get around since the 1900s time period, given the proximity and interconnectedness of those countries. A huge percentage of Europeans travel by rail and there’s even a growing, burgeoning movement to use rail travel instead of plane travel, given the dangers of global warming. In a study, the low carbon footprint of rail travel was found to be “relevant” to 71% of Interrail passengers. Hey, airline industry peeps, are you listening? Consider yourselves put on notice.
Few who have traveled by railway in Europe would dispute that there’s no finer way to immerse yourself in the sheer majesty of its terrain. With hundreds of cross-border railway options in Europe, such as the InterCity Express (Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria), Enterprise (Ireland, Northern Ireland, UK), and the TGV (France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Luxembourg), there’s frankly no reason not to take the trip across the pond to start hopping trains. After all, if you’ve made it this far in this article, you’re, no doubt, a bona fide Train Enthusiast. Felicitations! Google it, people.
If you want to further your passion for trains, check out some of these sites: www.modularrailroads.com, www.amtrak.com, www.trainworld.com, www.vacationsbyrail.com, www.american-rails.com, and www.railserve.com.
And, if you’re interested in a different type of road transport, rapid transit systems like light rail and the subway, go check out your local city’s sites.
In the final analysis, perhaps trains and railways resonate with us because, in this crazy, fast paced world, the rails give us the time and space to just sit, to be quiet, to just…“be.” In so doing, we have the opportunity to consider the greatness, vastness and majesty of life and of our surroundings. We have the opportunity to reflect on things that are much bigger and more significant than ourselves.
The words of the ancient Roman Emperor and Philosopher Marcus Aurelius come to mind:
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.”
In an ever-changing world, to sit and appreciate the natural beauty of the world is an accomplishment in-and-of itself, a reminder of a more innocent time period – when you ride a train, the means is also the end.
But hey, you already knew that, because you’re a Train Enthusiast.