The Present Day "Gateway" to Railfanning?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, June 17, 2022

Years ago, railroads had a more universal ‘footprint’ in American life.  Large numbers of people rode them to get from one place to another, both near and far.  They participated in transporting a great deal of what the populace consumed, as well as being an integral part of the transportation used in the production of basic materials.  Central portions of urban areas, particularly in industrial/commercial sections, saw local freights working on a five-day basis, and sometimes, even more.  The mail that was eagerly awaited generally went to and fro by train.

There were railroad people scattered about in public areas, including stations, and operational facilities such as interlocking towers.  Even more to the point, there were large numbers of railroad workers extant, who might also be neighbors and friends.  As late as the advent of the post-World War II “Baby Boomers”, toy trains were an integral part of the youthful experience for many boys (and the Lionel company, a major participant, at one point had hopes of adding girls to their customer base, as well).

In this environment, children had lots of exposure to railroads, and some (the fortunate few?) eventually developed more than a passing interest in this mode of transportation.

Fast-forward five or six decades, and many of these pathways into the world of railroads no longer exist.  Consolidation has caused the rails in many locations to have been removed entirely. Intercity passenger trains in most locations have been whittle down to a few, although in recent years there has been an expansion of commuter service, into surprising locations, in some cases.

A chance to interact with railroad operating people at the local station, or tower?  Good luck with that!  For that matter, how many people does your family know that have any association with that mode of transportation?

So what do chances to connect with the railroad world look like today? The expansion of commuting probably has done the railfan community a service by letting children see how mom, dad or both interface with trains on a daily basis in their working lives (or at least did, prior to Covid…). If you live in the northeast, parts of California or other select locations, intercity train travel by ordinary citizens is not unknown; children in these parts may even have made rail journeys themselves.

Museums and tourist railroads are another option.  Places like the Strasburg Rail Road have been doing this for decades, likely with good results; more recently, we’ve seen things like the Western Maryland Scenic 1309 thundering in public; the return of the former Reading 2102 to excursion service; the re-opening of the East Broad Top; etc.

Finally, I’d like to offer another candidate, where applicable: the humble, and still fairly-ubiquitous grade crossing.  One feature of early 21st century life for most kids is riding in automobiles, early and often.  And when they and a train are at the same location simultaneously, the occupants of the autos necessarily go into stop, listen and look mood, often producing a view similar to that in the photo above.

There certainly are intriguing things to see: trains are big, sometimes loud, and move at significant speed in many cases.  Many are relatively colorful, even without the application of graffiti.  Some come from faraway foreign places; what are all the different types of cars used for??

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like the grade crossing for getting today’s kids into training, literally.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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