In the mid-fifties there was a popular song which seemed to be on the radio all the time: “Standing on the corner” with the lyrics, “Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.” I’m pretty sure that in 2013 if you’re “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by” there’s a good chance that we’ll see you on the local evening news getting into the back of a Ford Crown Victoria. I like to watch trains and although, following 9/11, there were some homeland security directives about watching trains and taking pictures of railroad operations, train watchers are usually considered by the authorities to be harmless and/or nuts. A few years ago, on a bright Saturday afternoon while I was train watching, a pickup truck passed by and the passenger yelled out, “get a life, they’re just trains” so I guess that answered any question I had about how train watchers are viewed by the general public—they’re nuts.
I could tell you that I like to watch trains because I have been involved with the railroad industry and like to stay current on the latest equipment and operation methods. I could tell you that the motion of the trains passing by gives me an opportunity to improve my action shot camera skills or I could tell you that I enjoy the camaraderie of other train watchers (some of those guys really are nuts). That’s what I could tell you.
So what is it that creates my interest in watching trains pass by? To me it’s what the railroads represent. Drive across railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere and you know those rails connect to other lines somewhere and go everywhere. The old depot which has not seen a passenger train stop in decades still looks down the same tracks toward Omaha, Cheyenne and San Francisco. The tracks still head east to South Bend, Cleveland, Buffalo and New York City. They still head south to Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Miami. Those tracks may now only see two or three local freights a week with loads of lumber or plastic pellets but the loads come from somewhere far away and may have moved over the same routes once used by the Twentieth Century Limited, The Sunset Limited or The Champion. Those tracks or connections remember when silver Rockets and Zephyrs and Chiefs and yellow Cities flew by. Those tracks remember Hudsons and Berkshires and E-8s and Pullmans and domes and round end observation cars. And now giant diesels pull mile long strings of containers or hoppers or tank cars or auto racks and change the commerce of the country once again and those tracks will remember that too.
Years ago small town folks would head to the depot to meet the evening train which connected the town with everywhere and made the town someplace. That train was taken off in the early fifties but everywhere is still at the end of those tracks and everywhere includes far off places and people and products and memories and yesterday just like it did then.
Stare down the tracks and your destination is there. Stare down the tracks and the people you know or knew or will know are down the line. Stare down the tracks and wait for the sound of the horn or whistle and watch for the headlight growing larger. It’s all there just down the tracks. It’s all there if you watch.