Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More Thoughts about Tracks and Tubes


A/N: If there's one takeaway from this article, let it be this: F-O-F will be teaming up with Trains 
Magazine to cover the 611's inaugural run. Be sure to check back here and on the Trains Magazine web site around May 29-31 for blogs, photography, and live streaming!
On more than one occasion, I've run across more mainstream outlets referring to railroad-related web sites and video feeds as “one of the odd corners of the internet.” It' s a difficult for outsiders to the hobby comprehend why we would find trains interesting, and especially why some individuals become particularly dedicated (to put it kindly) to objects that are for most people primarily a source of annoyance.

Looking at things from within, though, there’s a sort of pure, unbridled enthusiasm that drives the railfan world that I haven’t noticed in my other hobbies. That's one of the things, beyond the love of the equipment and culture, that draws me in and keeps me here. We are like fans of a certain sport, each subscribing to our favorite company or type of equipment, but without the drafts and competitions  embitter one camp against each other. The projects and people who truly divide us into distinct side are few and far between, and we far more often come together in support of restoration projects and special excursions.



When big news breaks, it breaks hard, and for the past few hours my social media feeds have been shut down with the announcement of the 611‘s first excursions after the restoration is complete (I drafted this article a few hours after the announcement, but am only now getting it edited, thanks to the half-week of 12 hour shifts that Day Out With Thomas demands.) I had some foreknowledge of the excursion dates, since I am teaming up with the Trains Magazine staff to stream and live-blog the 611's trip from Spencer to Roanoke, but it took the instant and intense reaction to the official announcement. to make it feel real.

To me, the most exciting aspect of the news is that the 611's restoration and excursions are just the most publicized of at least half a dozen restoration projects currently in the works. I do not hesitate to go on the record saying that I believe that twenty years from now, we’ll look back at these years as a golden renaissance of steam preservation. It’s a breathtaking to live through the completion or announcement of some major project every few months, especially considering that the investments made in historic locomotives now will continue to pay off at least until my children are finishing up college.

I will also state publicly that I do not think it is any coincidence that interest in preserved steam locomotives began to intensify around the same time that social media platforms matured. Railfanning in all its forms has always been something of a solitary pursuit--so much so that in popular culture it’s a shortcut to show that a character is somewhat lacking in social skills. Internet connections have allowed railfans and participants in many other obscure hobbies to organize into larger groups, without the limitations imposed by geography and the inherent difficulty of spreading information through word of mouth. There is a more accessible audience to appreciate the technical and artistic value of train photography that might have only been taken for personal satisfaction in previous times.

The Internet has also altered the way in which we actually carry out our railfanning activities. Twenty years ago, trying to film or photograph trains involved quite the aspect of uncertainty. There was no guarantee of seeing any trains pass by one's spot at all. I can remember spending half a day trackside two decades ago, quite the challenge for my childish attention span, waiting for one of the Union Pacific excursion trains to finally roll by. Back then, was no way to find an explanation or to estimate a revised arrival time if a special train ran late, except keeping our ears tuned to the wind and feeling for the miniature earthquakes that prophesied its arrival.

Two decades and almost ubiquitous wireless access have turned the hobby on its head, and railfans can follow many special trains almost mile for mile.  The Union Pacific Heritage Program now uses Twitter to provide live tracking of its steam excursions, and many other railroads have adapted social media outlets to boost public attendance and visibility of excursion programs. There are Facebook groups and crowdsourced web sites which attempt to track heritage unites on the move. Some of these events, such as the relocation of the 4014, are live-streamed for anyone interested to watch from afar. (Nudge, nudge--that’ll be my job when the 611 rolls out at the end of May!) Social media and wireless technology has even changed the nature of more mundane day-to-day train watching: I’ve got a few friends living in cities up and down the line that goes past my house, and we often communicate to keep each other informed of foreign power, rare units, and unusual cargo passing through the area.

The most tangible benefit of internet connections, though, is the ability to organize for the purpose of preservation. Focusing sufficient attention and money to restore a locomotive in little more than three years, such as the Fire Up 611! organization has done, would have been impossible without the internet's involvement.  Online communities invite their share of bickering, they are also critical to preserving the knowledge to required to run and maintain antique railroad equipment and recruit enough younger people to keep the machines running for future generations.  I've been lucky to find many people with whom to trade skills and practical advice that I would never have encountered in daily life.  I’ve even managed to meet a few other people my age--and gender!--involved in heritage operations.

We could stand to use many more young people in this industry, and there's a dire need to record and transfer the necessary skills before they disappear, but things are looking up. I've got my fingers crossed that as more of the current restoration projects come to fruition, and more members of the public experience the sheer majesty of a steam excursion, more people will seek to take an active hand in the industry. It's up to individual museums and organizations to look to the future and give them a place, but I firmly believe that without the coming of the internet, we'd be putting more equipment into sheds--not pulling them out and dusting them off.