The things I miss, and the things I never will

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, November 1, 2010

I miss the F-unit diesel locomotive. It was an industrial icon, from the first FT in 1939 through the last FP9 in 1959, powered all those years by the 567-cubic-inch engine whose reliability made Electro-Motive the master of the locomotive universe. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine through freights being fronted by anything else but EMD’s biggest hit. Stand near one and you could inhale the sweetest perfume on earth, the pungent odor of diesel exhaust mixed with the invisible spray of lube oil. Today’s diesels are cleaner and quieter, but the thrill is gone. Most of all I miss the aesthetics of the F: the barely slanted nose, the arched windshields, the round portholes. At the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, I entered a room with a Western Pacific F unit in those resplendent colors and realized how far the locomotive builders have since wandered from this classic design. The last diesel locomotive to even turn my head, in fact, was the SD40. Loved those front and back porches.

I won’t miss the P42 diesel. General Electric sold almost 250 of these beasts to Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada and Metro-North Railroad. From the outside, they look like mean-minded bulldogs. From the inside, they achieve a new low in visibility for enginemen exceeded only by Bombardier’s HHP-8 electric locomotives, also owned by Amtrak and a few commuter railroads. Plus, passenger trains need locomotives that jump like jackrabbits, and the P42 is notoriously slow to load. You will never find a P42 in the California State Railroad Museum.

I miss the lounge car. They had bartenders, remember? Don’t confuse them with today’s snack-bar attendant. You could order a Coke served with ice in a glass or a gin martini. It would be brought to your chair by the white-jacketed bartender. The lounge car I miss had chairs and settees. You could sit and read a book, chat up the person next to you or just stare out the opposite window at the world going by. The closest Amtrak has to a classic lounge car in 2010 is the Pacific Parlor car, dedicated to first-class passengers on its Coast Starlight.

I won’t miss the Amlounge. An Amlounge is what appears on every short-haul train Amtrak operates. There are tables that skinny people can slide into, except that most tables are occupied by just a few people who have spread their laptop computers and working papers over the entire surface. You can get in line at the snack counter in the center to buy food that is neither nutritious nor tasty. Now the Amlounge has replaced traditional lounges on the single-level long-distance trains. You don’t enter these cars to read a book, chat up the person next to you or just stare out the opposite window at the world going by. Can’t we improve on this atrocity?

I miss country depots and the agents and operators who manned them. They were invariably friendly people, happy to answer the questions I asked and usually willing scare up an employee timetable or go look for a roll of old train orders. I miss the dispatching offices at all of the division point towns. Their doors were unlocked, the assistant chiefs were amazed that someone would be interested in what they did. For the asking, you could sit and watch a dispatcher at work. I miss the old general offices in the big cities. Amazing as it may seem today, there were no uniformed officers to keep you out or ID badges for visitors. As a young man, I walked right into the office of Santa Fe’s chief engineer and initiated a friendly half-hour discussion. (Later I learned he may have tolerated me because his son was, like me, a newspaperman.) Do you notice the common thread? Doors were open. People were accessible. Believe it or not, visitors were welcomed.

I won’t miss today’s Class 1 railroad culture. That is, unless it becomes even more sterile and standoffish than it is today, which is hard to imagine. By necessity, railroads have shed hundreds of thousands of jobs since the 1950s. By necessity, they have centralized their yards, their dispatching, their operations control. By necessity, they have increased security—made a fetish of it, almost, on a few railroads. I understand the reasons why, but that doesn’t mean I have to like railroading conducted behind locked and guarded doors.—Fred W. Frailey

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