Friday, May 31, 2013

The Gravy Train and Other Railway Idioms

"Ending the Gray Train: Toronto's Not on Track Yet."

That was a headline in the May 30 Globe and Mail. It was a play on words from Toronto's embattled mayor, Rob Ford, who rode to power promising to "stop the gravy train."

Not being a resident of Toronto, I'm not as interested in the foibles of its mayor as much as I was taken by the words "gravy train." We see that used so many times to describe people--usually politicians--who take the easy way to riches, usually via the public purse.

But where did the phrase originate? And why is it still in use today when so few people actually take a train? And what other railway idioms are still in use?

The common explanation is that a "gravy run" or "gravy train" meant an easy run with good pay for the train crew--gravy being slang for something easy or cushy. Another suggests its because gravy is something luxurious, and a train ride is relaxing and requiring no effort on the part of the passenger.

Whatever the origin, we all know what it means today--it's not a compliment, unless we might be on that train, of course; otherwise, we want to stop it.

Gravy train isn't the only railway idiom still in use today. Others include having a one track mind; being railroaded (possibly due to the actions of the 19th century U.S. railroad barons); off the rails and back on the rails; thin as a rail; train of thought; end of the line; and train wreck (as in, "his life is a train wreck").

Some of them are anachronistic, like "that train has left the station." Many fewer trains leave stations today, but nobody says "that plane has left the airport" or "that bus has left the terminal" to describe the moment when it's too late for additional thoughts or decisions.

Then there's the "third rail," as in "social security is the third rail of politics." The third rail in a place like New York City is the rail used to provide power to electric locomotives that traveled underground. In politics, it means: Touch it and die. 

Of course, hurricanes and tornadoes sound like freight trains, though I wonder how many people have stood trackside enough to know what that sounds like. 

When I was a kid, it was common to hear that a crowded venue was like "Grand Central Station." Grand Central Station is still crowded, but hardly anyone says that anymore.

Considering how incidental trains are to most people in North America today (unless they block their car at at a railway crossing when they are in a hurry to get somewhere), it's interesting that so many railway terms still persist in the English language. 

Any other idioms you can think of?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Another View of Riding The Canadian from Winnipeg to Vancouver

My train, leaving Portage la Prairie.

While travelling on VIA from Winnipeg to Vancouver in May, I was in the Park car at the end of the train (sitting in the dome) as we went through Portage la Prairie, MB. 

The tracks pass beneath an bridge in that town that is a favorite with railfans. One of the railfans who likes to photograph trains from the bridge is my friend Manny Jacob. Manny happened to be on the bridge the day our train passed through Portage, and got these two photographs.

I'm in the dome, somewhere!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Riding VIA's The Canadian from Winnipeg to Vancouver

Just before leaving Winnipeg.

In May I took a trip from Winnipeg to Vancouver on VIA's The Canadian--a family trip to celebrate my parents-in-law's 60th wedding anniversary.

We traveled in Monck Manor, named after the first Governor General of Canada. Built in 1955 for the CPR and acquired by VIA in 1978, it features 3 sets of upper/lower berths, 4 single bedrooms and 6 double bedrooms.

Monck Manor was located third from the end of the 21-car train--conveniently close to the Assinibone Park dome observation car bringing up the end.

In the Park car.

Spring came late to the prairies, but the view of the end dome was still spectacular.

The first station stop is Melville, SK, where passengers can get out to stretch their legs--and view the head-end power.

Food on The Canadian is wonderful, like this rack of lamb. Mealtimes were a highlight of the trip!

Sunset in Saskatchewan . . . excuse the dirty windows from the dome car.

Station stop in Saskatoon . . . a chance to try a bit of night photography with my point-and-shoot.

Next morning, in Edmonton, the Panorama car was added for the trip through the Rockies.

A view from inside the Panorama car.

Doming through the mountains. It's nice, but too bad VIA chose the more northerly CN route through the Yellowhead Pass, instead of the more spectacular CP Rail route through the Rogers Pass.

Skirting one of the many lakes and rivers along the way.

Unfortunately, the train travels through the best mountain scenery at night--what you hope for is a 4-5 hour delay so you can see the Thompson River Canyon in daylight. Disappointingly, our train was right on schedule; even frequent VIA travelers were surprised by this turn of events, and by how many freights got out of our way--instead of vice-versa.

Waking up to this view of the Fraser River, not far from Vancouver.

The conductor comes to the rear of the train to guide the movement backwards into Vancouver's Pacific Central Station.

Arrival, and end of the journey. All-in-all, a great trip. Best of all, it was at half-price; VIA has some great deals on its website; you can travel for 50% off regular fare, like we did.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Toilets and Trains, or, When You Gotta Go (Take a Picture, That Is)

Toilet in a train in Mongolia.

I admit it; I never thought much about toilets and trains until I posted an article about how UP 3368 replicated, in full scale, a locomotive cab in his bathroom.

While Googling to see if I could find out more about this unique "comfort cab," I was amazed to discover websites dedicated to the topic of toilets and trains.

For example, there's a Flickr photo group called Passenger Train Toilets where people can share photos of toilets on trains from around the world (see examples on this page).

Russian train toilet: Don't want to sit there!

There's another one called Train Toilets on the Toilet Guru website. It includes photos of toilets from Europe and the U.S.

England's national railway museum has a webpage and exhibit about the history of toilets on trains, called Lifting the Lid on Train Toilets. It includes a section about how Queen Victoria had a special toilet with which to dispose of the "royal waste."

Japanese Bullet Train toilet.

I also came across a story about how the Swiss Federal Railways are planning to upgrade the toilets on their trains. The bathrooms will be refurbished with the installation of wall coverings with images of mountains, woodland, clouds in a blue sky or blue tiles. Sounds comfortable!

The Swiss Federal Railway also reports that its 3,549 toilets are flushed 135,000 times day, with defects typically occurring after around 7,000 flushes. 

Interestingly, the Swiss Railway still has 1,435 toilets that dispose of waste directly on the track. They are planning to replace them.

So, there you go (not literally, of course). Everything you wanted to know about toilets and trains.

And finally, the toilet in a roomette on
VIA. Spartan, but clean and functional.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Neil Young and Clyde Coil: A Model Railroad Team

Most people know of Neil Young. Fewer people know of his alter ego, Clyde Coil, the model railroader.

Coil is the persona Young uses when he wants to talk about his interest in model railroading--in particular,  his interest in Lionel trains and accessories.

Young's interest in model railroading started in his childhood.

"My dad built an L-shaped layout for me with a Marx Santa Fe diesel set," Neil recalled in a 1993 interview with Classic Toy Trains.

"I dug that train like you wouldn't believe. We couldn't afford Lionel--I think I was 12 or 13 when I finally got my first Lionel locomotive, a No. 2035. Until then, it was those hook-and-loop couplers all the way."

His love trains continued into adulthood, and took an unexpected turn after the birth of his son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy. Young built a layout at his ranch as a way for him and Ben to spend time together.

"It was developed with an eye for doing a lot of things with my son," he explained.

Ben's inability to use regular controllers prompted Young to experiment with different forms of control, which led to his interest in developing new model railroad technologies such as the TrainMaster Command Control system and RailSoundsII.

In 1995, Young was part of an investment group that bought Lionel itself.

But don't go looking for websites featuring Young talking about Trainmaster Command Control or RailSoundsII. For that you have to search for Clyde Coil--Young's model railroading persona and alter ego.

Coil has a website called Coil Couplers of America, which features information about the products, often written in Coil's folksy down-home way, including use of the word "dang!"

Clyde has also posted a couple of unique video on Youtube. One is titled It's a Fake. It is reportedly shot on Young's layout.

In Episode 2, Clyde learns about new model railroad technologies. (There are suggestions that the voice of Clyde in both videos is none other than Young himself; you decide.)

There are also a couple of videos on YouTube featuring Young and model railroading (taped from an old TV show). Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

Earlier, I wrote a post about Young's layout, with a link to a New York Times article about it.

A P.S. about Neil Young: He was born in Ontario, but grew up right here in Winnipeg--where he developed his musical talent and started his career as a musician. In 2008, when Bob Dylan was in town, he turned up at Young's old childhood house and asked the current owners for a tour.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Train in the Bathroom, or That's Some Comfort Cab!

Jason Shron, owner of Rapido Trains, may be the guy with a train in his basement, but UP3368 (his YouTube moniker) has a train in his bathroom.

Not a whole train, of course--just the inside of the cab of UP 3368, an SD40-2 unit that was retired in 2010 after 33 years of service.

Now, instead of running across the country, it just operates a local--as in very local, as in a bathroom.

Don't believe me? Check out the video, which shows how the owner put the unit's former controls into his bathroom.

Not only can he flush the toilet, he can ring the bell and blow the horn, too--which might come in handy if you need to let someone know that the bathroom is occupied.

He's also hooked up the air brake so it sounds like the real thing; among other things, he can also dump the air, if he wants.

There's even recorded railway chatter, in case you don't feel like being alone.

A cab window, door, mirror and various signs round out the scene.

All some of us want to do in the smallest room in our house is read a train magazine; the owner of this bathroom can, as he says in the video, "play trains anytime I want to."

All I can say is: Amazing!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Locomotives for Sale

In the market for a used locomotive?

No not a model--the real thing. If you are, then National Railway Equipment in Illinois is the place you should go. 

With over 500 locomotives, NRE bills itself as "the largest privately owned locomotive fleet in the world." 

Its used locomotive page shows that it has 187 units for sale, such as the Canadian models on this page.

CP Rail, BNSF, CN, Conrail, CSX, WC, in all sorts of liveries--they've got lots to select from. How you get them home will be up to you.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

World Changers: The World Wide Web and the Railway

CERN—the folks who gave us the World Wide Web—put the first-ever website back up on the Web on April 30.

The website, which dates back to 1992 (the earliest that CERN could find), contains nothing but text and links. It's quite sparse by today's standards. But it changed everything, and in such a short time. Who can imagine the world without the Web today?

(Although CERN launched the first website in 1991, it was on April 30, 1993 when it the WWW technology was made available on a royalty-free basis.)

Thinking about all the changes wrought by the Web, I was reminded that this is not the first time the world changed so dramatically, and in such a short time. I am thinking, of course, about the coming of the railway—another technology that changed everything.

That's the point made by academic, historian, essayist, philosopher and train-lover Tony Judt, who died in August, 2010.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books titled "The Glory of the Rails," he noted that "no competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway."

Claude Monet: Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival
of a Train, 1877.

Before the arrival of railways, he wrote, travel between places like Paris to Rome had not changed for 2,000 years.

"Think of the limits placed on economic activity and human life chances by the impossibility of moving food, goods, and people in large numbers or at any speed in excess of ten miles per hour," he wrote, along with the "enduringly local nature of all knowledge, whether cultural, social, or political, and the consequences of such compartmentalization."

Until 1830, he said, "few people knew what unfamiliar landscapes, distant towns, or foreign lands looked like because they had no opportunity or reason to visit them." 

After the arrival of the railway, their world changed—for the very first time, many people could go places they had never been to before.

Trains, he said, represented a new and novel conquest of space.

"Canals and roads might be considerable technical achievements; but they had almost always been the extension, through physical effort or technical improvement, of an ancient or naturally occurring resource: a river, a valley, a path, or a pass," he wrote.

Railways, on the other hand, "reinvented the landscape. They cut through hills, they burrowed under roads and canals, they were carried across valleys, towns, estuaries."

The Opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway,
1825, Terence Cuneo, 1949.

This conquest of space also led to the reorganization of time.

"Even the modest speeds of early trains—between twenty and thirty-five miles per hour—were beyond the wildest imaginings of all but a handful of engineers," Judt said.

Trains were also dangerous.

"Signaling, communication, and braking systems were always one step behind the steady increase in power and speed of the engines: until well into the later 20th century trains were better at moving than stopping," he added.

The need to keep trains from colliding—keeping them a safe distance from each other and off the same track—resulted in the creation of the timetable.
"It is hard today to convey the significance and implications of the timetable," Judt noted.

It was firstly a way to organize railway traffic, but it ended up organizing daily life. 

People needed to know the time so they would know when the train arrived or left, and soon "everything that came after—the establishment of nationally and internationally agreed time zones; factory time clocks; the ubiquity of the wristwatch; time schedules for buses, ferries, and planes, for radio and television programs; school timetables; and much else—merely followed suit."

French Station, Guy Pène Du Bois

Train travel also revolutionized society. 

Until the opening of the first railways in England, "people did not travel together in large groups," Judt said. "A typical stagecoach held four inside and ten outside. But it was not much used, and certainly not by those with any choice. 

"The wealthy and the adventurous traveled alone or en famille—on horseback, in a post chaise or a private carriage—and no one else traveled far or often.

"But rail travel was mass transit from the very outset—even the earliest trains conveyed hundreds of people."

There's much more in his essay which, unfortunately, is no longer available free online. But as we mark the 20th anniversary of the Web, we can celebrate that incredible innovation and also celebrate the railway—another world changing technology.