Things I miss

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 22, 2010

Country depots
 
You have to be of a certain age to understand this, but I’ve walked into 1,001 of them unannounced, and was never treated discourteously. I think of myself as an introvert, but never did I fear opening a depot door and walking in. Those men (and a few women) were perhaps bored and welcomed someone interested in what they did. Back then I was a relentless collector of train orders, and more than a few country agents climbed into lofts with me to find ancient treasures. I miss all those encounters.
 
F units
 
Or GP7s or RS2s and RS3s. Growing up, they were coin of the realm in railroading in my part of Texas. At the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento the other day, I turned a corner to face a pristine Western Pacific F unit in California Zephyr colors, and couldn’t stop staring. Those Alco RS roadswitcher engines: Cotton Belt’s passenger train through my little town would stop to load mail, and it seemed as if the prime mover was always about to sputter and die. kplunk, kplunk, kplunk-kplunk, kplunk. Nothing was wrong with the locomotive; that was just the Alco personality at play.
 
Waiting
 
As a kid, that’s all I did, it seems: wait for those few trains that would eventually appear. I learned to suspend time, to think faraway thoughts, to imagine the sound of a whistle until such time that I actually heard it. I can still wait, of course. I’ve just forgotten how, because I’m now too impatient. Here is a habit I’ve lost that I should regain.
 
The “dispatcher phone”
 
Martin James, in the July 1967 edition of TRAINS, said it better than I can: “I like my railroading best right out of the dispatcher’s phone. To see a train with all its action and drama and aura of distances behind and distances ahead is fine. But to know that train, to have the feel of it long before its headlight blinks through the heat waves, to recognize it from a sequence of OS’s, or as the address of a train order, or as the topic of a succinct exchange between dispatcher and operator — this is something special to me.” It was to me, too, as a kid, being allowed to sit as long as I wished with the headphone draped over my 15-year-old head. Dispatcher phones? They don’t exist anymore. Now it’s called the railroad radio, but it isn’t the same.
 
People
 
Yes, people. Today, except for the district roadmaster, the track inspector, and the signal maintainers, railroads are depopulated between terminals. This is as it should be, I know. But I miss the presence of railroaders along the way, at those country depots, at the section shanties and in the interlocking towers. They were the public embodiment of a railroad. Frankly, they were also a source of information.
 
Dispatcher offices
 
As late as the 1970s, they were everywhere, it seemed. And I never went near one without dropping in, introducing myself, and asking if I could be shown around. Because I showed a genuine interest, the chiefs and assistant chiefs were unfailingly friendly. Some would let me sit for hours, watching and listening to a dispatcher do his thing. Try doing that today. You almost need an act of Congress to enter a Class I’s dispatching center.
 
Look, I’m okay with railroading in 2010. There are more freight trains than ever to appreciate. I have many pleasures being a railfan today. It’s just that there used to be an entirely different set of pleasures, and yes, I miss them.
 
What do you miss? I’d like to hear from you. — Fred W. Frailey
 

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