The Reappearing Railroad Blues


For decades the railroad industry was seen as a decaying backwater that would more or less vanish after the last American steel mill shut its doors. I can just remember those sad days when Penn Central collapsed and Conrail looked like a government boondoggle. I remember a TV news reporter making a stretch of railroad track bounce up and down merely by pressing on it with his tasseled loafer, and young Arlo Guthrie riding the train, singing City of New Orleans in a desperate bid to save an important industry. This, I think, appealed to a lot of railfans, who seem to be a very nostalgic lot. Every glimpse of a train could be the last, every snapshot archival, every bankrupt line a "fallen flag," as if it were Appomattox Courthouse - the lost cause.
But then something happened. The railroads came back. Unburdened from outdated regulation by the Staggers Act, and streamlined to the point of profitability, they were positioned perfectly to take advantage of rising fuel costs and the fact that most of our manufacturing has gone abroad. Today, unit trains bound for Walmart and Best Buy speed across the entire continent in just a few days time, piling up well earned profits by the barrelful. Not to mention all that low-sulphur coal rolling out of the West, and that oil squeezed from the sands of the Northern Plains. Even our stinky Eastern coal is headed to the ports by the mountaintop. What's a mournful railfan to do?
I think there will always be rail fans, there is indeed "something about a train." But we may see a generation gap emerge in the hobby, dividing those who spent a lifetime dedicated to salvage photography and those who track the myriad trains hurtling across the nation using laptops running ATCS software - many of them have never known a time when it wasn't like this. Lucky kids.

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