What is this world coming to?
That question is asked partly in jest, partly in sadness after reading the weekend Washington Post story in this paper indicating that railfanning is in jeopardy because of the latest terrorism fears.
The FBI says that railroads have been targeted by terrorist groups. And people who show up in railyards and other places to watch trains, sometimes with cameras and sometimes with pen and paper and sometimes with tape recorder, are being questioned.
You can't blame the authorities. Sabotaging train operations would have a devastating impact on the American economy. And trains, by their out-in-the-open nature, could be an easy target.
Still, railfans don't seem like a subversive lot. Many are fanatics who show up wearing hats and jackets with emblems that say things like ATSF, BN, GN, NP, UP, PRR, NYC, ACL and even BNSF. There's no hidden code. Just the names of railroads, many of them gone forever.
Railfans enjoy watching trains. They trade photos with other train watchers of their latest "discovery." Some guys would rather listen to their train tapes than opera. The clickety-clack of the cars, the sound of the locomotive whistles or even the clang of couplers coupling become music to their ears.
I've been a railfan ever since I was old enough to say "choo-choo." With three different railroads running through Topeka, Kan., and with most of my relatives connected in one way or the other to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad which had its general offices in Topeka, trains have always been fascinating for me.
In those days you watched the big steam engines huff and puff into the station. There was no "Sesame Street" or Internet to occupy a fidgety boy.
Some people dread having to wait at a crossing for a long freight train to roll through town. Others, like myself, get a thrill when the crossing gates go down and the big BNSF pumpkin-colored engines glide through the Brainerd crossings.
I've never been a fanatic about this hobby. Oh, I know where the hot spots are around here. That's anywhere between Staples and North Dakota where maybe more than 50 BNSF trains a day speed through western Minnesota communities on the mainline. As a youth my father's connections with the Santa Fe got me a ringside seat at Santa Fe's big Argentine, Kan., hump yards. It turns out the guy who gave us access to the tower that day later became president of the railroad.
Beyond that, I just like watching trains. On road trips to the Twin Cities, it's more fun looking for the lights of an oncoming locomotive along Highway 371 than trying to read the billboards.
But this new world of terrorists is changing the way trainspotters operate. They may not be able to park alongside the tracks and watch the trains roll by. They may have to be sneaky and watch from a discreet distance. Or maybe they'll have to content themselves looking at their pictures or reliving times past with their own railroad empire through the magic of model railroading.
Something out of our grade-school days comes to mind. Remember back in the Cold War when people who visited Russia weren't allowed to take pictures out train windows in certain sensitive locales? Now it's the 21st century and we're talking about America where society is becoming more and more closed.
It's a sad commentary on our times. It makes you wish for a simpler time when you could stand next to the tracks and wave to the engineer.
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