Intoxicating Nostalgia

By: Sam Noble

Trains, to me, have always had a certain intoxicating nostalgia and mystique to them. In the distance you can hear their forlorn calls, identifying themselves on short and long blasts of the whistle. Up close, their raw power and size is evident as they trundle past, unhindered by the world around them. They move almost on their own schedule and accord, out of sync, it would appear, to their surroundings.

I don’t think the average person gives them much thought outside of the nuisance of a whistle late at night or an unexpected stop on the commute to work, though. Certainly, when Dan and I were stopped by a train while driving around Muncie the other day, we weren’t planning for it. We wouldn’t have given the tracks another thought if there hadn’t been a train coming as we pulled up to them. Normally, we probably would have been annoyed at the inconvenience, but the pause gave us time to stop, think, and chat. Today, the crossbucks signaled nothing more than a brief pause, instead of a hinderance.

If it weren’t for my involvement in Indiana Crossrails, I wouldn’t think twice about what exactly the train was doing, but watching the huge, multi-ton cars rumble past, we both remarked that it actually is a major feat of engineering to be able to move so much weight over such distances with one engine. As train car after train car rolled by, the point really sunk in: this behemoth machine truly is a lifeblood in our country. After minor investment in rails and cars, you get massive returns, both in efficiency and environmental friendliness. Shipping materials hundreds of miles on set routes with near guaranteed travel times, incredible track records for safety, and minimal chance of unexpected stops, jams or delays is a powerful idea.

The thought that these machines are both a moving, working object and a part of the urban and rural landscape struck me. These massive machines carry some of the best camouflage I’ve ever encountered. They are as ubiquitous as buildings and roads, to the point that I, and many others like me, rarely give them a second thought. The graffiti splotched cars blended the train into the cityscape, like one more downtown alleyway. How can advocates and idealists bring attention to something so ubiquitous that it disappears except when inconvenient? We mulled this question over, but drew no conclusions.

No sooner had our conversation started than the train was gone, and the railroad warning lights lifted. We found ourselves back in sync with the world, off of the unexpected schedule of the train. We drove home, but the short hiatus stuck with me. It really makes me wonder what else is just under my nose, slipping by uninvestigated.