Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Darkest Hour

The electrics had been gone for nearly 6 years, the other big and reliable diesel locomotives had been forcibly returned to points east in November of the previous year, and the harsh winter of 1979 had brutalized everything that remained. Locomotives were parked instead of fixed, the increasing burdens of the car fleet rental drained the company's pockets, and the amount of deferred maintenance to the tracks and right of way was showing itself in the slow orders and derailments. On average a train derailed somewhere on the western extension once every day. These were the Road's darkest hours.

Occasional bright spots were quickly blotted out. The state of Montana's interest in purchasing the line was quickly abated by the many strings management and the lenders tied to the sale. Interest from other rail lines like Southern was documented, but came to nothing. And the traffic continued to fall, travel times continued to rise, and the company started double-counting maintenance costs across its Lines West. Then the final days of dead freights, only one each direction every day. And then it was over with the rails sold to scrappers and the land sold to ranchers or the government. Day laborers living in RVs began disassembling by hand what was America's final transcontinental.

In Ringling Montana, the old station still stands as a memory of the better times. For now the old building manages to hold herself up in the shadows of the nearby power lines. Like a few other leftovers scattered across the west, her memories are long enough to remember the darkest hours too.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Difference of Decades

In the winter of 1995 I stepped aboard a set of mis-matched Superliner cars and began a journey that would go on for many years. In 1995 the Capitol Limited, and other Superliner trains as well, still sported the occasional El Capitan coach as well as the standard "transition sleeper" for the crew. The locomotives being used were F40's, and the paint was faded candy striping that was slowly giving way to the more stylized blue-band with small white and red stripes. Things that have now passed into history.

I remember well the trips between Pittsburgh and Mt. Pleasant, IA where I'd escape between semesters. The sunrises across the Midwestern plains were amazing. Occasionally fresh snow would be kicked into the air as we raced along at 80, turned a brilliant orange with the rising sun. Telephone poles rolled by outside the windows as we blasted through small towns that came and went, bearing only a silent testimony to our travels. In the darkness of night and lake-effect rains, the stainless steel glistened as we curved toward big cities like Cleveland.

Holiday trips were always fun, and this year I logged one more. Like so many others before me, I boarded a train at Chicago's Union Station and headed north along with the ghosts of the old Hiawathas. Rain greeted us as we emerged from the station's catacombs and Chicago slipped away outside the big Superliner windows. The Milwaukee roadbed still carried marks of its original owner: vertical mileposts on the old telegraphy poles. Canadian Pacific has augmented them with a more standard reflective sign, but many of the originals are still there, buried in the trees that have grown up along the right of way.

The daylight quickly faded as we made stops at the old Milwaukee town of Columbus and I was left to ponder the difference time can make. We're left with memories of how things were, even an occasional glimpse wrapped up in an old milepost or station sign, but the reality of change is undeniable. I looked at my reflection that stared back at me in the tinted window as darkness fell outside and I pondered the extra lines on the stranger's face, the gaunt expression, and the receding hairline. Now no longer a young under-grad, several years of a real job and grad school have changed that. And change keeps happening. As I look forward another decade and ponder how jobs, marriage, and family will alter the young traveler even more - who will stare back at me when I look into a darkened window in another ten years? Will there be old mileposts as a few leftovers, or just memories of different times?