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The Romance Is Over

John W. Pinkerton


My home is only two blocks from a major railroad line which runs from Galveston to Chicago.  Of course, the trains travel other places across the country, but the locals mainly associate the line with these two cities.  It's a busy line.  As a matter of fact, I'm watching a long string of cars slowly moving south as I write this essay.

The railroad, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, built a roundhouse, tie plant, and switching yard here about a hundred years ago.  Although Sante Fe sold the tie plant to an outside firm, Koppers, it's still making ties here.  There's still a switching yard now run by the Burlington-Sante Fe Railway.  The roundhouse disappeared years ago.

People who visit us, particularly those who stay overnight, sometimes comment that they are very aware of the noises made by the trains passing through and the cars banging into each other in the switching yard.  Linda and I seldom are even aware of the trains' activities.  It takes a couple of years to fully adjust.

The local historical museum features many items related to the railway and its local history.  It's a pretty nice museum which is seldom visited…that's a shame.

America had a great romance with the railroads.  I think the romance  lasted from the Industrial Age to the end of passenger trains in most of the country.  Trains carrying heavy cargo don't create the romance that trains carrying folks around the country do.

Farm boys once paused their work in the fields to stop and listen to a distant train passing through the countryside going somewhere…going somewhere.  The sound of the trains stirred their imaginations and made them long to also go somewhere.

There was a time when boys, both farm and city, wanted more than anything a Lionel Train set under the Christmas tree.

There was a time that young men dreamed of hopping a train and like Hemingway's Nick Adams to travel around the country with fellow vagabonds finding adventure and danger along the way.

I remember as a child waving wildly and admiringly at the men in the caboose of trains.  If you were lucky, one or more of the men would wave back.  It was a friendly moment for both the men and the kids.  I guess this was the last vestige of railroad romance.  The cabooses are gone.  The men waving back are gone.  Trains now just end with another unspectacular freight car.

I think there are a few passenger trains on the East Coast, mainly Amtrack, which owe their existence to the federal government.

Good highways and dependable cars have captured Americans.  There are still efforts, mainly by government entities, to have Americans return to the trains.  There is even an effort here in Texas to establish a high speed passenger train system connecting San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth.  Many citizens of Texas are fighting like Hell to prevent it.  I think they're right.  We moved on long ago.  The romance is over.