Autobiography (Railroad-wise)

I was born in the age of steam. I grew up within the sound of a four-track main line into London, England. The line marched across our valley on a high embankment with two large brick bridges that allowed road traffic to pass underneath. It was always busy: commuter trains hurrying back and forth, a constant stream of freight down to London from the north and high-speed expresses bound for the capital. Further north of us there was a road that ran right beside the line for a mile. I remember as a child of five or six years old running along the road to a convenient overbridge and standing above the tracks when a steam locomotive went underneath, the steam and smoke billowing all around me. Thus a railfan was born.

At age ten in the mid-1960s, I watched the trains cross the valley every day from my school window. I was especially alert at eleven in the morning, as this was when a sleek bright blue diesel train came sailing through the village. This was the fabled Blue Pulllman. Alas, it lasted only a few years before being moved to other routes. Steam had gone by now and diesel reined supreme. Steam and whistles had given way to diesel exhaust and horns. Still, there was much variety in those first generation diesels and always plenty of action. When I was old enough to cycle, I was always riding up to the railway and watching trains for hours. Occasionally I could catch trains on three of the four tracks simultaneously. Semaphores and signal boxes (towers) were still a part of every towns station (depot).

A number of summers in the 1960's were spent living with my grandmother and aunt. They lived close to a real racetrack, the East Coast main line, running from London to Edinburgh. The summers I was there were when the fabulous Deltic fleet, in their original green livery, came flying through on 90mph expresses. I sometimes saw the prototype Deltic, DP2, before it met an untimely end near Thirsk. Baby Deltics could be seen hustling the Outer London surburban stock in and out of town. What a fascinating time and place to just hang out and watch trains.

In my teenage years I cycled further afield, visiting other main routes into London. Each had its own unique character and rolling stock. I visited as many London termini as possible and I have the platform tickets from that adventure on the wall. When I bought a Morris Minor in 1972, that was more reason to visit other railway lines. My first job after college was located right beside the East Coast main line at Stevenage. The Deltics were now gone from express duty, replaced by HS125s that swept anonymously by  at 125mph. Freight was on the decline and the line had been electrified for commuter trains, sweeping away most of its character. Many glorious semaphores and signal boxes had been reduced to splinters.

In 1979 I emigrated to the United States of America, settling in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The apartment that my wife and I first lived in was across the street from the Chicago to Detroit Amtrak line. At that time Amtrak was running the French built Turboliners and F40s through town. Freight was limited to a Conrail run twice a week. However, there were other Conrail lines in town that saw daily freight action and the Grand Trunk also serviced industries using a branch from their main line through Michigan. I first worked at a paper mill in town, which was switched daily by Conrail. Click here to see photos of that operation. I then worked for Upjohn in Portage, which was at the end of the remaining GR&I track southwards out of Kalamazoo. This line was rebuilt with ribbon rail to ensure maximum safety of all the hazmat cars coming in. Coal from the Appalachian Mountains came in too. It was busy enough that the plant needed its own switcher to spot tank cars all day long and deliver coal loads into the power plant. This operation continues today, although Pfizer owns the place now and the Upjohn name is long gone.

We bought a house just south of Plainwell, over the hill from the ex-GR&I line from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, which hosts four Norfolk Southern trains a day. In 1994 I bought my first speeder and ten years later I have five of them. In these cars I have traveled over 3,000 miles on the rails. I believe that this is the ultimate thrill for a railfan. I also like to ride on excursions in Michigan. These are set up by Lake Central Rail Tours. Here are links to a couple of them in early October and then late October  2003. I still take photos but not as many as in the past.

Fifty years later, I still live within the sound of a railroad line. However, railroading has changed totally in my lifetime. While it is a financially strong industry today, it lacks the charisma that created this railfan.................

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Last Edited 25 March, 2012