Missing trains in lockdown

Posted by Tyler Trahan
on Thursday, September 3, 2020

I miss trains. I haven’t ridden a train since March 9: my longest withdrawal since 2009 when I began commuting by train. For nearly eleven years, I hadn’t gone more than a few weeks without taking a train to work, working aboard a train as a brakeman and fireman, teaching about trains as an educator at a transportation museum, or covering a story on assignment for Trains. The sights, sounds, and smells of the railroad were a consistent part of my life. I did my best to avoid complacency, but there was a comforting familiarity to the railroad which transcended time and distance.

Then the pandemic hit and I went cold-turkey on trains, working from home for months before joining the ranks of the unemployed (I am still a freelance correspondent to Trains). My neighbors’ driveway was resurfaced recently and the smell of creosote brought me back to the Before Times.

Luckily, although I can’t ride a train right now, I can still head trackside to watch them. Despite the effects of the pandemic, trains are still running, and there’s plenty to see in busy Massachusetts.

My first stop was Lincoln, Mass., on the Fitchburg Line of Boston’s MBTA commuter rail system. A wooden overpass takes a hiking trail over the tracks and provides a peaceful overlook with a great view. The Boston & Maine used to have a center passing siding here, torn out long ago but still apparent in the gap between the two main tracks. This is familiar territory: I used to commute from the nearby station and covered the line’s modernization for my first Trains feature (see “Of Searchlight signals, F40s, and an Interlocking Tower,” December 2013).

Another MBTA station provided the near-opposite of sleepy Lincoln: Mansfield, Mass., on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. This is one of a few stations where the Acela rips through the station at its full 150 mph allowance. Standing on the narrow platform as one passes overwhelms the senses. You first see the train as a headlight in the distance, and moments later you’re hit with a wall of wind and sound and a blur of speeding train filling your field of vision. Then it’s gone and by the time you rouse yourself to look down the track after it, the red marker lights are already impossibly far in the distance amid a cloud of dust. I’ve tried to capture this in photos and video, but have failed to do the experience justice.

Other trains serve Mansfield too, of course: At 125 mph, Northeast Regionals behind ACS-64 electrics are nearly as impressive as the Acela, and a break in the parade of MBTA commuter trains gives a CSX local freight the chance to dart across the main line between an industrial track and the Framingham Secondary. The periods between trains are brief, but give this technical reporter time to admire the impeccable track and constant-tension catenary. I know better than to confuse impressive infrastructure with permanence, but I’ll take any level of stability these days.

All this steel and speed is a visible reminder of what we can achieve working together toward a common goal. Cooperation is how you run a railroad. In that vein, I’ve been dutifully following the guidance of health experts to protect myself, my loved ones, and my fellow citizens. Train-watching is great, but I look forward to beating this pandemic together so we can get back to riding trains (and so many other things).

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