Backscatter: Whats All This With Trains?

By Donald Christiansen

Is it true that nerds have an intrinsic fascination with trains? Consider supernerd Sheldon Cooper’s detailed knowledge of rail history and locomotive construction. And his extensive rail journey to numerous U.S. cities about which he boasted he had never once ventured outside the train station of a single location.

Measured against Sheldon’s extreme nerdiness, I think of myself as a mere semi-nerd. Nevertheless, I have a long history as a train buff. The stage was set at an early age when I received a Lionel tinplate train set. Two nearby train stations helped reinforce my interest. Soon I had enlarged a discarded kitchen table to support an O-gauge layout complete with tunnels made from papier mache over shaped window screening.

To connect with the real world of railroading, using my father’s Kodak camera I photographed incoming passenger trains at the Plainfield station of the “Jersey Central” (the Central Rail Road of New Jersey), taking many photos of the famous Camelback steam locomotives, and of commuters boarding passenger trains via stepstools placed alongside the rail roadbed.

Along about fourth grade, at lunchtime my classmate, Billy, and I would race down to the Lehigh Valley rail line, where a shallow brook wandered beneath a low black iron railroad bridge. We would wait for a thundering freight locomotive to pass over us. We stood, hands over our ears, on a flat rock in midstream, as the drive wheels hammered the track overhead. When a smouldering hot coal fell through the tracks and burned a hole in Billy’s shirt, we reluctantly ended that exciting pastime.

I soon became a regular reader of Railroad magazine, written for and contributed to by locomotive engineers, trainmen, yard superintendents, and other railroad employees.

While still in school, but old enough to get my legal “working papers,” I wrote to the chief signal engineer of the Lehigh Valley local rail division, asking whether he could use an extra hand on the signal gang during the summer. In a polite letter, he declined my offer. Years later I learned he had telephoned me, but in my absence had spoken to my mother, who had a mistrust of anything electrical. When he explained to her that I would be climbing signal towers and working with live wires, she may have reacted negatively.


I had become a faithful reader of Kalmbach’s Model Railroader magazine, which deals only with scale models. I decided to abandon Lionel tinplate and move on to HO scale modeling, building my first HO locomotive, a New York Central Hudson, from a kit. It ran on 6 volts dc. With my layout expanding, I elected to switch from a power supply to a 6-volt auto battery with a trickle charger to keep it at full charge. I built a cabinet for the battery with a vent to dissipate the hydrogen. My complex new layout presented me with some challenges in creating circuitry to control its signals and switches.

Riding the Rails

There is something to be said for Sheldon Cooper’s grand tour of rail stations in the United States. My vote for the top five would go to New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Denver’s Union Station, Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, Boston’s South Station, and Chicago’s Union Station.

My first rail trips were to New York City, via the Jersey Central to its Jersey City terminal and onto its ferry to lower Manhattan. I would choose a seat near the center of the car. The view was better and the ride a bit smoother. The green velvet seats would trap the locomotive’s coal soot that filtered through the open windows in the summer. The closed windows in the winter were not airtight, so soot (and cold air) was still plentiful. Nevertheless, I always enjoyed the ride.

The tracks fanned out as the train entered the Jersey City terminal. In winter, the snow and ice could cause the switchpoints to freeze open or closed. Track crews would light a flammable liquid on the crossties at the switchpoints. During a snowstorm, the resultant flames would glow through the nearly opaque falling snow, offering an eerie scene to passengers, especially at night.

Among the most memorable of rail adventures was my trip on a troop sleeper from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to San Francisco via the Union Pacific. We traveled at 65 mph over tracks that had been hammered by similar troop trains since the war’s beginning. We left Great Lakes at 2:30 in the afternoon and arrived at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the next morning. Then through cattle-covered rolling hills of Nebraska, followed by Grand Island and North Platte on the Union Pacific Overland Route.  Most of our time was spent lined up in an endless chow line in the train’s aisles. Our paper plates and cups were eventually spammed with portable Navy grub, which we consumed while in a slow-moving line back to our assigned car. In spite of the challenges, I enjoyed the adventure. After stops in Salt Lake City and Wendover, our train climbed up to Shafter via S-curves, enabling us to view our locomotive for the first time. It was carrying green flags, an indication that it was running in two sections, with another locomotive and cars following. In a few more hours we arrived in San Francisco, and soon I was assigned to my first ship, the aircraft carrier San Jacinto.


While immersed in electronics and communications engineering studies at Cornell, I happily found time to participate in the activities of the Cornell Railroad Club, where many of my fellow members were also pursuing an engineering degree.

The train culture experienced a classic divide among advocates of steam vs. other forms of locomotive propulsion. Steam vs. diesel lurks in the background of nearly every episode of Thomas (the tank engine) and Friends, where it is humanized by the argumentative locomotives on either side of the issue. Railroad historians may be open-minded on the issue, but we train buffs are often biased. I personally lean toward steam and thus am also sympathetic to the steampunk movement. I can assure you that riding in the cab of a shovel-fired steam locomotive is an experience like no other.

Finally! Into the Roundhouse

Train aficionados tend to go on endlessly with accounts of their experiences, so I will end it here. Besides, Thomas and Friends will be coming on in just a few minutes.


  • Railroad magazine (1906-1979), various publishers (merged with Railfan magazine, 1979).
  • The Model Railroader magazine (1934-present),Kalmbach Publishing Co.
  • Railway Age magazine, Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp.
  • Trains magazine, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
  • Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, White River Productions.
  • Model Railroad News, White River Productions.
  • Railfan and Railroad magazine, White River Productions.
  • Passenger Trains Journal, White River Productions.
  • Jones, R. W., Boston and Maine, City and Shore, Pine Tree Press, 1999.
  • Jones, R. W., Boston and Maine, Forest, River, and Mountain, Pine Tree Press, 2000.
  • Winkowski, F., Sullivan, F.D., Mancini, R.E., 100 Trains, 100 Years, Smithmark Publishers, 2000.
  • Withuhn, W., The Spirit of Steam: The Golden Age of North American Steam, Barnes & Noble, 2005.
  • Swift, M., Iron Horses, Chartwell Books, 2008.
  • Swift, M., North American Locomotives, Chartwell Books, 2009.
  • Guizzo, E., “The Steampunk Contraptors,” IEEE Spectrum, October 2006.

Note: My HO layouts have long since been retired, yet I continue to collect locomotives and HO rolling stock, a sample of which appears at the introduction to this column.

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum
and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He may be contacted at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks, Don, for a delightful article on trains. How about a story about you tour on the carrier, San Jacinto?

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