Rail Reminiscing

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Since I was a tot, I have been enamored with and mystified by rail transit. As many boys do, I had a radar for all things ‘train’ — spotting the smallest printed image of one in a magazine or sensing a toy railroad for sale on a high shelf in a store. I logged scores of hours assembling my Brio wooden railway this way and that, and I even wore a conductor’s cap and overalls for errand outings with mom.

I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, a city with a station on one of the nation’s most heavily traversed rail corridors: the line from Boston to New York City. Though I enjoyed any kind of toy that resembled a train, my favorite experience was witnessing the real thing. I liked the long freight trains that barreled through downtown well enough, but spotting a line of polished Amtrak cars was the true prize.

My uncle has always lived in Manhattan, and a few times a year, he would make the three hour journey to our house for an overnight visit. I was always excited to play basketball with Uncle Irv, or to receive a ride around the house atop his neck, or to watch him juggle three Dunlop tennis balls. But the highlights of his visits were always the first moments he arrived.

I would hop in the shotgun seat of my dad’s sliver Volvo 240 sedan, and we would weave our way through downtown to Providence Station. I vividly recall the cold, smooth flooring in the station lobby, the long wooden benches, the echoey atrium, and the click-click, shuffle-shuffle sound of the arrival boards ticking the news of an incoming train to waiting passengers.

We would descend the steps to the platform only after Uncle Irv’s train appeared on the arrival board, mostly because the weather in Providence is usually cold, or rainy, or generally crappy, or some horrid combination of the three. There would be no sign of a train, but slowly a thin, quiet buzzing sound would emanate from the tracks, increasing subtly and steadily in volume. Then would come a muffled, low rumble, and finally a tiny fleck of light would appear where the two rails seemed to meet on the horizon.

The rumble would grow into a thunderous hum, the light becoming brighter and more focused. I remember hearing two loud horn blasts as the engine, usually an EMD F40-PH for my fellow rail-nerds, barreled closer. The distant train seemed to be frozen on the tracks, barely moving if at all. Then suddenly, and without warning, the train would be moving fast, loudly clamoring into the station, the streamlined railcars blasting sheets of wind in my face as they whooshed by.

It seemed the train would never slow in time to deposit its passengers, but it always did. I would duck down to look through the long, two-pane, green-tinted windows to see if I could find my uncle seated in one of the rows — a perpetually unsuccessful task. Without fail, he would tap on my shoulder from behind and greet me with an uncle bear hug — complete with an incidental but nevertheless unwanted mustache bristle on my neck or cheek.

Though now just a memory, the red, white, and blue striped train-car livery is still vivid in my mind, and the bold, simple lines of the Helvetica car labels still evoke all the best affects of 1980s travel. How delighted I was to happen upon a retired sleeper car (pictured above) when visiting the Duluth Train Museum with my three-year-old son not long ago.

Now living in the South, there is a single Amtrak line that runs through our city of Atlanta, with a southern terminus of New Orleans and a northern endpoint of Washington DC. The train makes exactly one northbound and one southbound departure daily — not exactly landing our city in the category of ‘train hub’.

I have been traveling by bus (usually Megabus) for the past few years as it is usually convenient, cheap, and accessible. Rail on the other hand is generally understood to be scant, inflexible, and pricey in comparison.

But I love the rails, and I relish the thought of whisking through the countryside of the United States aboard the whispery carriage of an iron horse. Soon I hope to depart ATL aboard the Southern Crescent, headed into the night for a mesmerizing journey through America’s all-but-forgotten corridors.

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