I recently read a story about trains becoming important again for hauling our freight. Maybe you read the same story telling us that these higher fuel prices were forcing some trucking companies to go out of business. This has caused a rebirth in railroad commerce. I like trains and I'm glad to hear this.
The iron horse has played a vital role in our country's history. Locomotives have carried our freight, mail, passengers and all manner of products across this great nation.
As a youngster, I was lucky enough to get a job (while in high school) carrying special delivery mail. With the permission of my teachers and a promise to make up any missed schoolwork, I met the local train five times a day. The mail came in and I delivered packages a mile or so in any direction from the post office. When the weather was cold and extreme, it took longer to make the deliveries, thus causing me to burn the midnight oil to do my schoolwork!
The locomotives burned coal back in those days, and the smokestacks belched black smoke into the local community. It was fun watching the trains arrive, and to see workers unload cargo. It was interesting to see passengers coming and going through the depot, many of them arriving from faraway places. Railroads carried the bulk of our mail in those days and each train probably had a railway postal car.
Many soldiers traveled from U.S. Army camps during World War II going home on furlough via the trains. Remember those dining cars and porters in white coats? For those passengers with extra funds, there were drawing rooms and double-decker bedrooms. Conductors came around punching tickets, answering questions and calling out the next station. Dining car waiters brought food right to your table as you sat there looking out the window watching the world rush by. There were tunnels, railroad bridges and interesting station stops as rural America passed by your eyes.
Poor soldiers usually traveled by coach, and their sleeping accommodations were not all that fancy. You would be lucky if you could get a pillow to rest your head upon. It didn't matter. You were riding on a train to see loved ones - in a coach carrying 50 or more other passengers and looking out the window enjoying your country's scenery. You were not driving a car, fighting traffic and congestion, and paying high fuel costs! Trains, in those days, were a cheaper mode of transportation and they didn't bog down in congestion.
Train travel must have captured my imagination early in life. When my children were in high school, the family took a long train trip across the United States and back home again. At the time, steam locomotives had been replaced by diesels, and we rode a vista-domed car from Chicago to Santa Fe. After touring the West, we returned to Chicago via the Union Pacific's northern route.
On our long train trip, we felt like explorers seeing out the windows places once traveled by early pioneers, stage coaches, Pony Express riders and Indians hunting buffalo. It was an adventure as we thought about the hardships suffered by early railroad laborers who built the tracks we rolled upon.
We missed seeing the smoke from the old steam locomotive, but we were thankful for the diesel engine, air conditioned passenger cars and the domed observation car. A train ride across America's vast expanse of plains, mountains and desert is a trip full of inspiration and nostalgia.
Too bad it has taken an energy crisis to bring trains back into favor for carrying freight and passengers. Welcome to the iron horse. Your increased presence should be a positive influence on American transportation.
Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author, and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.