Month: April 2017

Road Tripping on the Shiny Irons

IN 1899, THE GAME OF FOOTBALL WAS STILL A NOVELTY. Only a couple dozen colleges and universities fielded teams, and the majority of these were all but unsanctioned, being affiliated with their eponymous school in name only. Into this hazy world of sport came the plucky gridders of Sewanee, Tennessee. The team from The University of the South were stinging from a disrespect done them by the Vanderbilt footballers. Unable to agree on the split of gate receipts, Commodore Vanderbilt’s Commodores had canceled a football game, and the Tigers were itching to exact brutal revenge on… well, on somebody.

In those days of iron men and mud roads, the visiting team had more disadvantages than mere crowd noise, and just getting to the game might be the tallest hurdle they would face. Being college students, Sewanee’s players researched and found a solution to that problem… take the train!! After a flurry of scheduling, the Tigs were ready for road work… lots of it. They had set up titanic struggles with not one, not two, but FIVE other southern football clubs… an impractical task made, well, made inconceivable by a time frame of SIX DAYS!!! On November 8th, 1899, the surly Tigers boarded a train for a 900-mile-plus ride to Austin, Texas. After dispatching the Longhorns, it was back on the Irons for a short hop to College Station, Texas, where less than 20 hours later, the Aggies succumbed. A 350-mile overnight ride to New Orleans followed. Apparently the ease of sleep made possible by the Shiny Irons’ inherent smoothness agreed with the team, as the Tulane Green Wave was victimized in their turn. Sunday the 12th was a day of rest for the Episcopalian University of the South, as the team convalesced and saw some sights, then it was onto the Irons again, this time a day trip to Baton Rouge. Thumping the LSU Tigers, the Sewanee Tigers followed up with another smooth and comfortable overnight Irons excursion, a 400-miler to Memphis and the waiting Ole Miss Rebels. Another day, another win, such is the result of the rest and relaxation of traveling by train. Sewanee’s team rode 2500 miles on the Irons including three overnight trips, and bested five top-flight opponents in six days, by a total score of 91-0.

Take me out to the ball game…
Take me there on the train…
We’ll get a seat in a Pullman car…
Too bad the ball park is not very far…

For decades, sports teams, journalists, and fans all rode the Irons to the games, many times on the same train. The close proximity enhanced the sense of team among the players and allowed traveling journalists and boosters a closer look at the players. The Irons were, from the beginning, an integral part of the experience. By the late 1800s, baseball game times were being set to coincide with the local train arrivals. Railroads, ever watchful for ways to entice the riders’ dollars, adjusted routes and timetables to add extra capacity for games deemed to be more popular. To more properly cover 2016’s World Series, New York Times columnist Dan Berry rode the modern incarnation of these “trains to the games”; Amtrak’s “Lake Shore Limited” connects Chicago to New York and Boston, skirting Lake Michigan and Lake Erie before heading across the hills to the coast. Coincidentally, this course takes the train through Cleveland, making it a “home run” choice for baseball fans wanting to take in all seven games. Reflecting on a time when the teams and fans rode the Irons to all the games:

In fact, when the Indians beat the Boston Braves in 1948 to win their last World Series, they took a special train from Boston that picked up this same rail line in Albany. It then continued on to Cleveland, where the giddy denizens awaiting them surely believed that other championships would follow, the Yankees be damned.

Today’s passenger rail, even stunted by decades of under-emphasis and neglect, is every bit as inviting. According to the ubiquitous “Google Maps”, a car ride from the home of the long-suffering Cleveland team’s Progressive Stadium to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago billy-goat-cursed Cubs would have set you back 5 hours and 31 minutes, give or take a game-day traffic snarl… and a stop for gas… or two… and a stop for a meal…. Take the train!! A 24-minute light rail ride on the blue-green line from Progressive Field gets you to Cleveland’s Lakefront Station, then six hours of smooth scenic relaxation (with breakfast!) and you arrive at Chicago’s Union Station. The blue line leaves every 8 minutes and, after a transfer to the red line, delivers you relaxed and well-rested at the gates of Wrigley.

In the heyday of the Passenger Irons, the railroads ran special trains to sporting events of national prominence. As late as 1985, the “I-70 Series” contests between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals were served by a dedicated Union Pacific route between the two baseball-mad cities. This run was only for dignitaries, however; politicians, former players, and other notables. The bright yellow 11-car train whistle-stopped across the show-me state announcing that, for this year, at least, baseball was a Missouri game!

The Shiny Irons go to “America’s Game”. In the decades following World War 1, the U.S. service academies at West Point and Annapolis built ever-stronger football programs, and the natural rivalry between Army and Navy made their annual contest a nationally recognized event. Situated half-way between the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., the logical neutral site for the game was Philadelphia. The 1924 contest was hosted at Municipal Stadium, just a short hop from Pennsylvania Railroad’s Greenwich yard. The proximity was noted by the railroad management who quickly put in place a system for moving the growing number of attendees. Each year that the game was hosted at Municipal (later John F. Kennedy Memorial) Stadium, the Pennsy built a temporary depot in the freight yard, hauling the thousands of fans from around the country to the game and back home. This is the largest concentrated move of rail passenger traffic in U.S. history.

This painting shows Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives lined up outside of Municipal Stadium after the 1955 game.

“Mass Transportation” by Griffith Teller

Though by 1975, the Army-Navy Day Special had reached the end of it’s time, the Shiny Irons returned to “America’s Game” in 2005, in a very heartwarming manner. Philadelphia philanthropists and Irons enthusiasts Bennett and Vivian Levin decided this tradition needed to be revived. As the owners of three luxury rail cars, the Levins already had a leg up on a program to transport football fans to the Army-Navy extravaganza, but their plan was to do more – a lot more. In addition to their cars, they cajoled the owners of fifteen MORE luxury rail cars to throw in with them, and arrangements were put in place for Amtrak to pull the cars. The passengers would be football fans who had already paid far more than the price of a ticket; wounded American soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center (in Washington, D.C.) and the National Naval Medical Center (in Bethesda, Maryland). A donor from the Army War College ponied up 100 really good seats, and 88 wounded warriors and their guests attended the 2005 Army-Navy game.

The toughest ticket — for the 2010 game

The tradition continues on the Charitable Irons, the 19-car Liberty Train

passes the Maryland Area Regional Commuter station in Bowie, Md., heading for Philadelphia and the 2010 Army-Navy game.

Excursions on the Shiny Irons. In addition to taking the train to your favorite activity, the Irons can also be the activity. There are dozens of excursion trains taking passengers on sightseeing trips where the train ride itself is among the memories. High Iron Travel offers excursion rides to scenic areas not covered by Amtrak routes.

For over 25 years, High Iron’s special trains have visited the far corners and out-of-the-way places of North America. From the tall timbers of Oregon, to the wilds of the Yucatan, to the stately peaks of the Canadian Rockies, the Caritas and accompanying Pullman and Dome Cars have delighted adventurous travelers and railway enthusiasts.

Sightseeing from the back of a restored golden era passenger car not only offers a sensory experience unmatched in your minivan, but in many cases, the Irons run through territory you can’t see from any other venue. And, if you REALLY want to see the sights of Classic Irons, High Iron offers a special excursion trains to the Spring Meeting and Fall Convention of the American Association of Private Rail Car Owners!

Back to the grandstands, excursion trips are available to Cheyenne, Wyoming’s famous Frontier Days. You’ll ride to “The Daddy of ’em All” behind a steam locomotive from Union Pacific’s “Heritage Fleet” leaving Denver for Ol’ Cheyenne. If your taste runs toward the “Sport of Kings”, Pullman Rail Journeys offers a private train ride to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky. For the children, and the children at heart, Premier Rail Journeys touts itself as the “nation’s largest operator of holiday rail events”. Their Polar Express Train Ride will take you to the North Pole (figuratively speaking) from Massachusetts or from Mount Hood, from Texas or New York! The incomparable beauty of Southwestern Colorado is on the Irons courtesy of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Winding through the breathtaking Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains, the Rio takes you from Alamosa to La Veta, and offers a multitude of diversions for those not into natural wonders… The Oktoberfest train features food, live theme-inspired music, and the best German beers on the Party Irons, as well as an extended stopover in La Veta to explore the German Bier Gardens and festival booths. Rio Grande’s “Rails and Ales” excursion is the Rio’s most popular (wonder why…?). For those not “goin” just to be goin’ ”, the Rio has a fantastic concert lineup for this summer season, too! Here’s a database of the train tours, excursions and tourist railroads in North America… this information may be outdated, call first!

There is a lure to the train that calls to us. The siren song of the bygone time when the Irons were the first and sometimes only choice… that lonesome whistle immortalized in song… the size, speed, power and sheer intensity of the railroad beckons. “Come see the sights with us”. Take the train, not because it is there… take the train because it is the train!!!

’cause that’ll keep the rails shiny!!! Thank you for joining us!!


The Silk Road on the Shiny Irons

For those looking for an excursion of a more exotic flavor, the Shiny Irons becon you to go East… waayyyy East. Central Asia, the area between China and the Caspian Sea, between Russian Siberia and Afghanistan, has been a crossroads of culture and of trade for thousands of years. Lapis Lazuli, the azure stone from which Cleopatra made her eye shadow, came out of the eastern hills of Central Asia and made its way along hardscrabble trails to Egypt. Pottery, precious stones, Chinese and Indian cloth, even steel for Viking swords passed along these trade routes. Alexander the Great found his bride, Roxanne, in Sogdiana. Most famously, Chinese silk was passed from trader to trader, giving its name to the network of caravan roads. Near the conclusion of “The Thousand and One Nights”, the Arab collection of tales which gave us Aladdin, flying carpets and Sinbad, a main character retires to the mystical city of Samarkand. He takes a horse caravan and a couple of months to get there… you can take the train.

Mir-i-Arab, Bukhara, Uzbekistan (from Golden Eagle’s web site)

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers:

Silk Road by Private Train

An iconic 21 day rail adventure between Moscow and Beijing through Central Asia. Join us in September as we retrace the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation. Retracing one of the most important trading routes of ancient civilisation, the Silk Road follows in the footsteps of such legendary figures as Alexander the Great and Marco Polo. For centuries, merchants and adventurers journeyed to and from China on ancient routes through some of the most testing landscapes in the world trading silk, spices and perfumes. These ‘highways’ – stretching some 4,000 miles (6,400 km) – collectively came to be called the ‘Silk Road’.

This incredible tour offers a close-up look at Moscow, Volgogorad, then across the Kara Kum desert into the Old Orient. The 6000 year old ruin of Merv, fountains and golden domes rising from the earth, magnificent architecture and art and history in abundance are yours to behold as the Irons carry you across this ancient portal between East and West. The ride goes from Moscow, in Russia, to Beijing, in China before retracing steps. This is not a ride for the faint of wallet, however, as the “double-occupancy” cabin will set you back enough to buy a mid-sized car. For one who wishes to see the Silk Road in style, this is an unmatched experience. Golden Eagle has sever other luxury train excursions, see their web site!


Play a Train Song

Taking the Irons to a resort hotel… somewhere in the hills. Flat and Scruggs sing “The Petticoat Junction Theme”

from the campy 1964 sit-com of the same name.

Contraband on the Shiny Irons

A NEW ERA IN LAND TRANSPORT WAS INAUGURATED IN 1830 when the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company began revenue service on the Shiny Irons using a steam powered locomotive to move cargo.

One hundred years ago, American Class 1 railroads earned $3.6 billion dollars hauling lading (lading is the cargo a rail car carries) over 400,000 miles of track. Today, those same Irons stretch over only 161,000 miles, but the revenue generated totals a tidy $77.7 billion. By far the largest single commodity shipped on the Irons is coal, mostly destined for electric generation. Other commodities can be recognized by the rail cars carrying them such as automobiles, carried in specialty cars called autoracks, and consumer goods packed in the ubiquitous containers laden on the backs of well cars. Covered hoppers carry grain and other bulk commodities, tank cars transport oil, fuel alcohol, corn syrup and other liquids. The Irons have transported the sublime and the ridiculous, each packed carefully into rail cars common and quite uncommon, each and every shipment noted on a Bill of Lading….

Well, almost… every… shipment….

From the beginning of revenue service, there were shippers who just didn’t want to pay the freight. This could be for various reasons, including simple stinginess, however, it is usually for even less virtuous motives. From the first spike driven, the Irons offered the opportunity to travel long distances at great speed, turning weeks and even months into mere days. Those whose cargoes were acceptable loaded their goods on the train… those whose cargoes were shady loaded them under the train. In Laredo,Texas, the arrival of the Rio Grande and Pecos Railroad in 1882, and the 1888 completion of a Mexican National Railway line connecting los dos Laredos with Mexico City heralded a new dawn of smuggling, as entrepreneurs hid goods on trains bound into Mexico to avoid high Mexican tariffs. In the ensuing years, the transport of covert cargoes has only increased in both quantity and concealment. Though the odd smuggler will do so to avoid paying the freight charge, that is the exception. The Irons are, frankly, so efficient that freight dues are a very small part of the cost of a product, and the handling and shipping expertise available to those whose freight is “above (floor)board” is well worth the cost.

More often, the smuggler is shipping on the sly because the cargo in question cannot be shipped legally at any price. Tax stamped goods such as cigarettes and alcohol, illegal drugs, guns, stolen goods of all types, all command very high profits when moved from areas of low cost to areas of high demand, and, again, the Irons move goods very well. The Volstead Act of 1919, enacted to carry out the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, made the transport and sale of alcoholic beverages very profitable, and, as related in this 1922 article, the Shiny Irons were surreptitiously drafted to the task.

The railroads are carrying whisky in many parts of the United States; it is safe to say that the higher officials know nothing about it. You have only to talk to a bootlegger for a few minutes to get his opinion of the perfidy of the railroads in hauling liquor. There is one well-known whisky runner in Florida who by some means got hold of a rail car oil tank, such as is used by the big oil companies. He had a hatchway cut out of the top of the tank and he upholstered the inside with stuffed burlap. In this tank he could carry $60,000 worth of whisky, in bottles, when they were properly packed. There wasn’t a more gaudily painted, land-going oil tanker in the United States than his. He devised the name of a fictitious oil company and had it painted in brilliant letters on the sides of his craft. He “greased” himself a route along the lower Atlantic Coast, and became famous among bootleggers, North and South, for the size of his earnings. He’s still running at this writing.

These outrageous efforts were more the exception in the alcohol smuggling industry, as small manufacturers and distributors took over in the latter days of Prohibition and on into today. Other goods have replaced booze as the major “non-revenue” shipment on the Irons. Cigarettes are a very high-profit commodity, however, the government is many times the major beneficent of this wealth. Shipping cigarettes from a low-tax state or country to a high-tax one can net a nice chunk of change for the bootlegger. A box car load of cigarettes successfully smuggled can net a million dollars for the enterprising shipper, however this takes a degree of audacity rare even in the criminal world. Enterprising crooks in Slovakia found a novel way to use the Irons to move butts to highly taxed Ukrainian smokers… they dug a tunnel and built a rail line in it! Tens of millions of contraband cigs, as well as illegal drugs, untaxed alcohol, and refugees, traversed the Covert Irons before Slovak law enforcers discovered the operation!

More common are high-profit items such as illegal drugs. Smugglers are reluctant to include drugs as part of the lading due to numerous high-tech inspections that cargoes are subject to in today’s troubled world. Low volume, very high profit shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana can be hidden in numerous places on a train. Many times the smugglers will board the train at a rail yard and secret the drug package in a surreptitious location, marking it with coded graffiti to alert the people on the other end of the line to pick up the shipment. Sometimes the train will be stopped in a remote location by creating a real or simulated emergency condition, causing the train crew to stop long enough for the drugs to be loaded. When smuggled from a “producing” area, the drugs are usually of very high purity, and a relatively small package of a few pounds can be easily concealed. The high value per volume of the drugs means that after being diluted for sale, this small package can be worth millions of dollars. In the U.S., most of these shipments originate in Mexico, Central America and South America and with dozens of trains crossing into the U.S. every day, chances of discovery are low. Moreover, the relatively anonymous nature of the shipment means that, particularly for the “shipper”, chances of capture are even lower. For the pick up crew, the anonymity vanishes, however, the logistics of tracking the shipment require watching it literally every mile, as the retrieval team can jump on board the train at many points and toss the package to waiting subcontractors. For a train which may be going thousands of miles, and contraband which may be destined for anywhere along the route, it is not feasible. Desperate lawmakers have attempted to put pressure on the railroads to stop the flood, but there is precious little the railroads can do.

A Google search of “smuggling” and “railroad” returns many references to the Underground Railroad, the mid-19th Century network of people and trails used to help escaped slaves move from the American Southeast north and eventually to Canada. Not at all a “railroad”, the Underground seldom used the Shiny Irons, as it was too public and the risk of capture too great. An estimated 100,000 people followed the Underground to freedom. With heartbreaking irony, the railroad today IS moving people in secret. Mostly fleeing from economic hardship and war-ravaged countries, millions of people find themselves on the rails trying to find a better life. Refugees, many of them children, flee gang violence in Central and South America. Moving north toward the United States, many find their journey includes a terrifying five-day ride on “El Tren de la Muerte” or “The Death Train”. Hanging from ladders and platforms, or riding on the roof of the train, the fortunate will arrive in the north of Mexico. The unfortunate will not. For those who survive, a two-day walk across the Mexican desert will, many times, herald another train ride, this time across the U.S. southern border to Texas, Arizona or California. For a fee, the “coyotaje” will smuggle the immigrant across the border, often on the rails. Locked into boxcars or autoracks, the refugees trust to luck to avoid the x-ray scanners and other devices used by border enforcement agents to detect drug and human smuggling, trust to luck that the train will stop before their strength is exhausted, and trust to luck that, when the train does stop, someone will let them out. Many, many times, this does not happen. Botched human trafficking results in tragedy often enough to barely be news. The Irons see their share; reports from 1985, and from 2002, testify to the heartless nature of human trafficking.

To combat smuggling of all types, the railroads have installed hi-tech scanning systems which can “look inside” rail cars and cargo containers, allowing inspection teams a clear view of the contents of a rail car, even as the train continues to move.

Using scanning technologies as mundane as x-ray, and technologies seemingly from Star Trek, such as muon detector tomography, the railroads up the ante in the battle with smugglers. Trained imaging teams posted at border crossings scan the cars of the passing train, alert for anomalies which indicate something which shouldn’t be there. If the imaging team spots something suspicious, the train is ordered to stop and a more detailed inspection is carried out. The age-old struggle to ship cargo and stop contraband has entered the space age, even on the oldest of powered transport. Moving into the future, the railroad industry will continue to make every effort to keep the cargo safe, legal, and moving…

and that’ll keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!

Stay Off The TRACKS!!!

pIn an earlier post, The Shiny Irons stressed the urgent need for vigilance at grade crossings (the intersection of a road and a railroad track is called a “grade crossing”). We noted that the difference in weight between a standard full-sized family sedan and an “average” freight train is the same as the difference between a family sedan and a can of pop… and the sedan, if struck by the train, will fare no better than the can of pop run over by the car.

Reports over the last few years have shown a decline in the number of fatalities at grade crossings, however, the latest data from 2016 is disheartening. Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit public safety organization, offers safety education to the public;

Ever stopped to consider the dangers involved with crossing highway-rail grade intersections or trespassing on railroad property? At Operation Lifesaver, we have.

Operation Lifesaver reports that, while the number of vehicle-train collisions fell 2.4% in 2016, the number of fatalities rose a sobering 13.7%. Additionally, the number of deaths due to trespassing on train tracks rose 12.8%. These are chilling numbers in any case, and especially so considering these deaths are entirely preventable. Most grade crossings in the U.S. are marked with at least a “crossbuck”, the familiar x-shaped sign saying “railroad crossing”. Many more are marked with the crossbuck and a set of red flashing lights and warning bell. About 35% have access controlled by a gate which drops across the traffic lane in front of oncoming traffic. Yet BNSF Railroad’s 2014 statistics show that 52% of grade crossing collisions occurred at crossings with active warning devices!!! For your own safety, be on the lookout for grade crossings!

Do not EVER drive around a gated crossing.

Do not EVER cross a grade crossing when a traffic control signal is active.

Stop, look and listen at grade crossings without active traffic control signals.

Operation Lifesaver’s data show that deaths from trespassing on train tracks rose to 511 from 453; trespass injuries grew to 483 from 415. Again, these are totally preventable. The train tracks are private property, and are a dangerous place to be. In October, 2011, three teenagers died on the tracks while taking a “selfie” with an oncoming train in the background. One of the parents pleads in Union Pacific Railroad’s “Inside Track” online magazine’s report;

No one should have to go through this and I hope people will seriously think about the campaign’s rail safety message and share it with their loved ones.”

In March of this year, another teen died on the tracks during a photo shoot for a modeling portfolio. The train tracks were to be the backdrop.

According to authorities, [she] was having photos taken with the train tracks as her backdrop. She began moving away from a train coming down the tracks when she was struck by another train coming in the opposite direction, on another set of tracks.

Union Pacific released two animated YouTube videos urging people to take selfies away from railroad tracks as part of a railroad safety campaign launch in August 2016.

The Irons are an indelible part of our culture, and we are very familiar, perhaps too familiar with the sights and sounds of the tracks. It is, nonetheless a very dangerous place, where things happen very quickly, where things are very large and very heavy. The Shiny Irons are not a playground, they are not a backdrop, and they are not a hiking path. The only place you can be hit by a train is on the tracks! Stay alert at grade crossings! If you are not at a grade crossing, STAY OFF THE TRACKS!

Play a Train Song

Sights, sounds and smells of old time railroading, Johnny Horton sings “Coal Smoke, Valve Oil and Steam”

from “Done Rovin’ “