Railroads (Yawn)

by Bill Monson

When word got out that the BNSF wanted to close some crossings along its Cedar Fork line, it got me to thinking how railroads have gotten more and more boring. If it weren't for Amtrak, they wouldn't have much color at all.

Don't get me wrong. I don't miss steam engines. They were neat for watching, but rolling damnation downwind. More than one housewife tried out longshoreman language when coal smoke dirtied her drying sheets on the clothesline. And I'm old enough to remember getting cinders in my eyes on the old Farnham Street bridge and other places. No, I don't lament the loss of steam. I can always go to Railroad Days if I want to see, smell and taste old-time locomotives.

I do regret the loss of cabooses. Call them what you will -- crummy, way car, hack, shack, money wagon, shanty -- cabooses gave freight trains character. They came in all shapes and sizes and were rolling advertisements for their home road. They were also the punctuation at the end of the parade of cars, which could reach the century mark then and now. That flashing rear-end device they hook onto the last coupler these days is no comparison. Maybe FRED Is just as efficient in the era of computerized railroads as a brakeman In the caboose was in the days of steam; but it doesn't wave to kids and it's one more indication how the personality of railroads has become duller.

As recently as the 80s, you could still see crew on both ends of a freight. There were also still enough different railroads that the exchange of cars made watching a slow freight pass an adventure in geography. Baltimore & Ohio, Boston & Maine, Kansas Southern, Monon, Missouri Pacific, MKT, Canadian Pacific, Lackawanna, Frisco, Rio Grande, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, Seaboard, Cotton Belt Route, Minneapolis & St. Louis (The Peoria Gateway Line!). Most of these are gone -- conglomerated, their tracks torn up like the old M & St. L lift span at Keithsburg.

Many railroad lines used unique logos on their cars like the Pennsy's Interlock PRR on a keystone or a sleeping cat for the Chesapeake & Ohio. The Boston & Maine had a Minuteman, the Canadian Pacific had a beaver, and the Lackawanna had Phoebe Snow. The Great Northern had a rampant mountain goat until it was swallowed by the Burlington. And what is the BNSF logo? Forgetaboutit!

Yes, crossing delays were more interesting once. Kids stuck In a car with their family could try to name the different types of cars or provide nicknames for the various lines. One game my family played was to find cars from railroads at all four compass points without resorting to major lines. Something like Soo Line, Mississippi Central, Atlantic Coast Line and Western Pacific. West on the compass was tough because a lot of the lines there were among the first mega-corporations. You could do the alphabet, too -- but we had arguments over the two local lines -- was It Burlington Route or CB&Q? ATSF or Santa Fe? Sometimes we'd just look for the rarest line -- like the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range or the Quanah Route.

Today, what do kids do?

Long trains of container cars do not make for easy games -- even if you know Japanese.

The head-end crew might wave -- if you arrive before the locomotives and the first diesel has its side windows open. And you still might see tank cars or box cars or gondolas with coal or racks of new cars, vans or pickups. But mostly you see steel boxes, car after car of nearly identical containers with corporate names and all the personality of plastic garbage bags.

And no caboose.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 8, 2000

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