Railfans as seen from the locomotive cab

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 28, 2010

My column in the February TRAINS (“7 Ways to Become a Better Railfan”) prompted a lot of responses, but none more interesting than the one from a Union Pacific engineer. Doug Smith was a railfan as a kid, enjoyed a career in the military, and then at midlife, became a railroader. The crux of his point of view: railfanning is a hobby, railroading is a way of life, and the two have a hard time meeting each other.
But let’s let Doug speak, in his own voice. Here’s an edited version of his note:
“Fred W. Frailey made the comment that we railroaders don't respect the common railfan because you haven't earned it. Not to be mean spirited, but you never will, either. You simply don't do this for a living. Occasionally TRAINS will publish an article about the life from a former rail, and maybe there's the rub: it's someone who just couldn't cut it. I've been doing this for 15 years, hiring out with the Chicago & North Western and still working as a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific.
“I spent most of my youth as a railfan, probably ostracizing myself from my peers and thinking I knew a great amount about the industry, a thimble-full of knowledge in hindsight. As a teen, I rode Southern Railway's steam excursions and applied to work for the L&N. I ended up spending a career in the Army, but never losing my interest in trains. In 1994, with the Clinton administration gutting the military, I took advantage of early retirement and applied to about forty different companies. I got three solid offers from Midwestern roads, the C&NW, the DM&E, and the TC&W. I hired out with C&NW in May of 1995. I've been qualified as an engineer since 1996 and am currently working in Chicago suburban passenger service.
“I used to be in awe of some of the old heads and it feels weird to be treated like one by some of the new hires. I'm in my fifteenth year and am still learning things. I've worked with some wonderful people and some real jerks. Suffice to say I've learned from both, but hope my coworkers hold me in the former category. Most of the rails I know also meet this criteria. It's been a good fit as I've never been furloughed, though I've worked my share of crappy jobs at all hours in every weather condition imaginable. I've been through two divorces, one possibly the result of the demands of this profession. I've never really been unemployed and this job has always provided food, clothing, and shelter.
“I spent a career in the Army, and that more than anything probably landed me this job. Constant dedication has kept it. Railfanning is a hobby. Railroading is a way of life. The two can be compatible as I know many rails who are also train enthusiasts. I've gotten my share of ribbing about it, most of it good-natured, some of it not. Suffice to say this is no place for foamers. If you can't stay focused on the job, you're likely to get someone injured or killed, perhaps even yourself. I've known railfans who express a desire to work for a railroad but I can tell they're not cut out for it. One of Murphy's Laws states, ‘Anyone who has a favorite railroad has never worked for one.’ And I'll have to admit that one of my biggest peeves is the railfan who ignores the workers while drooling over the ‘pretty trains.’ Nothing runs without us! If we weren't here, it would all be inanimate hunks of useless metal.
“In the past TRAINS has run articles from folks who have barely gotten their feet wet in the industry or hated what they did and moved on, taking time to excoriate the industry and those supervisors who rankled them. And I suppose that's the crux of it all: you either hate this job and don't know what else to do, or you love it because it's in your blood. Either way, you spend your days at it and it leaves you with little time or desire to pontificate upon it.
“And that's my view from the locomotive cab.”
Thank you Doug Smith. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy