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March 23, 2009

"The Train Nuts"

Folks in the railroad industry refer to rail fans as “foamers”, because they supposedly foam at the mouth when they see any kind of train. When they move in groups, radio scanners on their belt and cameras at the ready, they seem to be harmless practitioners of an eccentric hobby.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love trains. But I don’t “spot” them, recording car numbers in a small book. I read rail magazines, but I don’t know the number of axles on an FL9 locomotive or the running time of The Broadway Limited in 1942.

For me, trains are a means to an end… a transportation option, not a hobby.

Not all “rail fans” are transit advocates… a point I learned last weekend when I was asked to speak to the regional meeting of NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers, about the work of the CT Rail Commuter Council.

NARP is a great organization and I’ve been a member for many years. Their President, Ross Capon, works tirelessly in Washington to promote rail alternatives to roads. But if this meeting was any indication, their 23,000 members don’t all live up to the group’s name.

Picture this hotel ballroom in New London, filled with balding white guys (like me). But there’s nobody of color (aside from the waiters) and the only women are dutiful wives along to support their husbands’ hobby, knitting all through the meeting. And this audience is supposed to represent rail passengers?

Where were the students, the business men, the handicapped… the folks who really take trains?

Capon gave a great speech about the many changes in Washington breathing new life into rail: increased funding for Amtrak, new initiatives to force freight rail lines to expedite passenger trains, even discussions about ten new high-speed rail corridors across the country.

Another NARP officer spoke of the crazy plans by NJ Transit to build new tunnels under the Hudson River which would dead-end at a new underground station for Garden State commuters instead of continuing on to Grand Central.

But when I spoke about Connecticut’s sorry history with commuter rail, the audience just didn’t get it.

Sure, they seemed to appreciate the slide show of the horrors of our aging fleet, broken down stations and over-crowded trains. They listened politely when I told of building grassroots and political support for improved service. And they clearly understood how important the new M8 cars will be. But during the Q&A it was clear I was dealing with a group of foamers, not passenger rail advocates.

“Why not build high-speed rail through Worcester Mass.?” I was asked. “Why should we when Acela already runs to Boston,” I replied.

“Did you know that the New Haven used to run from Waterbury to Boston,” asked another guy, handing me a photocopy of an old timetable. Nice historical touch, I thought, but why does that matter now that half the tracks are gone?

“Why not run double-deck cars from New Haven to Boston,” a third guy asked. “Why not add capacity where we really need it,” I impatiently replied. Foamers!

If NARP is to truly represent rail passengers it must get beyond these rail fans’ fantasies and nostalgia for a bygone era. We’ll never have parlor cars from New Canaan again nor ride the “Twentieth Century Limited”. But we can improve Amtrak and expand Shore Line East to Providence. We can refurbish our aging fleet of cars and keep fares affordable. We can add commuter rail to Hartford and beyond.

Rail advocates must be taken seriously, not seen as eccentric hobbyists. And NARP should do more to really represent all rail passengers, not just “foamers”.


Dawh63 said...

This is why I quit going to NARP meetings. I'm a bit of a "foamer" myself, but I'm at least aware that NARP is not a railway historical society or a model club, and those were the only types who showed up.

Chris said...

I also think the dues for the organization helps keep off all but the diehard. I know NARP needs operating money and what not but why should someone who just wants to have their train fare not go up and a train to ride on pay money to attend when it will be out in the news a day later?

Sounds harsh, but its a serious point. Many of those you say you want to be at the meetings (and i agree with you) don't have the surplus cash for dues on top of everything else.

Look at me for example in NY. ESPA wants money, but when I check recent news on their site its years old at best. Why would I give them money for old outdated information?

A Lynch said...

"Where were the students, the business men, the handicapped… the folks who really take trains?"

Try Facebook.

Spokker said...

Yes, keep on pitting advocate against advocate. You're a balding foaming train nut just like the rest of 'em, but somehow you're better.

No, not everybody is memorizing the numbers on the rail cars or whatever. Train enthusiasts were keeping the rails warm while everybody forgot about rail travel. Now that it's gotten a little more popular, you want to shove them to the wayside.

Yeah, I see those stupid discussions talking about nostalgia, but I also see a lot of discussions about how to improve Amtrak, make it faster, and drive ridership.

And I've also seen plenty of "transit advocates" talk about the most mundane topics and things the average person wouldn't care about in between fighting for increased transit funding. I've seen these so-called transit advocates chase light rail vehicles to take pictures of them, just like the foamers do.

When it comes to passenger rail advocacy, you need every friend you can get.

Spokker said...

Let me ask the authors of this blog post, do the people who advocate widening freeways and building more roads diss the guys who show off their Mustangs at the local car show? I doubt it.

Yeah, I agree that chasing trains is a little weird, but when a guy does that just to get a picture of some Amtrak locomotive it says to people, “These trains still matter. These trains are still important.” And the fruits of their labor are sometimes beautiful.

You know why that guy pulled out a historical timetable at the NARP meeting? Because that timetable is from a time when taking the train MATTERED. This month Trains magazine has a two page spread about commuter rail in Chicago. In the 1950s over 100 trains were operated by 13 railroads. Today 3 railroads operate less than 100 trains, and many places that once had service lack it now.

Remembering the past is important. Preservation is also important. I applaud people who take on those endeavors to preserve and remember our rail history, just as I applaud those who are looking to the future.

Poke fun at the "foamers" if you wish. I make fun of them and myself sometimes (I've ridden Metrolink in Southern California just to take a relaxing trip while listening to some music on my MP3 player, not necessarily to get anywhere. What a waste of time, am I right?), but pitting advocates against each other this way is really disgusting.

Bob said...

You are so right, Jim, about your “old white foamer” complaint. All the presentations were informative but they dived right into the weeds, demonstrating mastery of detail and offering very little vision. Your detailed discussion of the quality of the stations and the minutia of the new M8s was especially meaty.

Your slide show very clearly demonstrated how lousy service from NY into CT is. I live North of Boston and I wish I had the service you whined about. Lousy outmoded service is endemic in New England. Excuses are legion. Solutions are few.
Got any?

If you do I must have missed them during your informative discussion of the cost of upgrading the New Haven Yard.

One thing I did catch was the implication that improved service between New Haven and Hartford would be a good thing. I know you’re a CT guy, but perhaps you might agree that improved service between Hartford and Boston would also be a good thing. Come to think of it high speed connecting through Worcester and Springfield, the 3rd and 4th largest cities in NE would be a good thing, too.

If in fact you took the train to the meeting you’d know that a high speed train will never roll through the twisty, turny track in New London. Acela cannot seriously be considered high speed, since it can only approach its top speed for a short dash between RI and Boston. The lovely Long Island Sound route is ill advised for high speed. But that is surely just stating the obvious.

Oh yeah, I'm the guy who asked about rerouting Acela through Worcester, Springfield and Hartford. You misunderstood and misunderstand my question.

I am neither “foamer” nor fool.

NARP (and apparently you too) are fighting 20th a century battle without a coherent vision of how rail travel should work. We’re nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century. We need a picture of a 21st century multimodal transportation system. MassPirg has some ideas (here:

You might not agree with all their projects - I’d like to see some changes myself – but it at least paints a picture. It provides a target for negative guys like you.