Confessions of a train chaser

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, March 28, 2010

When people ask what I do for fun, I say I chase trains. They usually think this is a figure of speech — that I watch or photograph trains. Nope. Nothing beats a good chase. The other day I chased a train hundreds of miles. Unfortunately, it was a lot of effort for very little fun. I guess I should tell you the story.

I had ridden Amtrak’s Auto Train to Sanford, Fla., my speedy red Jaguar resting at the rear of the train in one of the auto carriers. The minute Old Red pops off the ramp in Sanford, we’re on our way up Interstate 4 and I-95 to Jacksonville, 125 miles to the north. My goal: to get there before the departure of CSX intermodal train Q172, which carries United Parcel Service trailers to the New York City area. It’s a fast train, worthy of chasing. Due out of Jax at 1 p.m., it often leaves 30 to 45 minutes early.

And wouldn’t you know. When I reach U.S. 301 on the north side of Jacksonville, at 12:40 p.m., I can hear Q172 calling the home signal at South Hilliard, Fla. It’s out of the gate and 20 miles ahead of me. Q172 can do 70 mph. I’m limited to 55 mph.

I am not suggesting that you become a train chaser. Nor do I advocate violating the speed limit; that would be wrong. Let me just say that during the next 30 minutes, to Folkston, Ga., I don’t lose ground. I am secure and confident I’ll catch up, given time. Why? Because the train hasn’t been invented that doesn’t get delayed. All I have to do is be patient.

Sure enough, in the Okefenokee Swamp north of Nahunta, Ga., Q172 for some reason makes a brief stop. All I hear over the airwaves is the conductor telling the dispatcher nothing amiss was discovered. Instead of 20 minutes, I’m ten minutes behind.

Though Jesup, Ga., I go, feeling that I’m losing ground again. Yet as I creep through the notorious speed-trap town of Ludowici, Ga., at precisely 35 mph, I hear a whistle and whoosh, here comes Q172 from behind. I had somehow gotten in front of it while on our separate ways through Back Swamp.

Alas, the first good place to chase Q172 was through the Okefenokee, south of Jesup. Too late for that. All I can do now is jump onto I-95 and be ready to intercept the train north of Ridgeland, S.C., on U.S. 17. I’m ten miles shy of Ridgeland and about five minutes ahead of Q172 when all traffic on Interstate 95 comes to a halt. It takes me an hour to go the next ten miles, during which time I see Q172 through a line of trees, on its happy way. Whatever can be torn to pieces inside the Jaguar, I rend. We are talking life-ending frustration.

But wait! The CSX A Line (think Atlantic Coast Line) juts east to pass through Charleston, S.C. If I can get past whatever is plugging I-95 and then drive straight north another 130 miles, to Florence, S.C., maybe I’ll get there before Q172. And about 15 miles north of Florence, starting at a control point called South Sellers, U.S. 301 parallels CSX off and on for about 20 miles.

Let’s cut to the chase: At South Sellers, some ten hours after I left Sanford to chase Q172, I finally get my wish. The first five miles we’re side by side. I watch the springs on the locomotive trucks adjust to the track. But mostly, window down on one of the first evenings of Spring, I listen to the diesel engines, in full roar. I’m in heaven. I fall behind going through Latta, S.C., but catch up by the time we get to Dillon, S.C. I expect to lose the train going across Dillon’s long 35-mph zone. But the engineer must take pity on me, because the train slows to 35, too. A few minutes later, I stop in the dark at a road crossing beside a pig farm just inside North Carolina for one final look at the train I’d pursued all day. It rushes past and into the night. Have a safe journey, I think to myself. — Fred W. Frailey

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