No one who has seen a steam locomotive in action can fail to be moved. The massive iron comes to life and breathes clouds of hissing steam and dribbles condensation like sweat. It is 200 tons of steel muscle and tendon grunting into motion with first one shoulder and then the other.
They were living, breathing beings in a way modern diesels can never approximate. Diesels just begin moving, dragging their mile of boxcars behind them. Steam showed the labor involved. You could empathize.
When I consider why trains fascinate so many people, I have to begin with that power. All trains are brawny. You can feel the earth hum under your shoe leather as a hundred coal-heavy hopper cars clank past a grade crossing. They are like thunder. They are like gods.
I am just old enough to recall steam. When I was an infant, trains spewed soot through the neighborhood along the New York Central line. Hanging laundry out to dry was an iffy affair. If the winds were wrong, my mother’s linens grayed.
As I grew up, the steam disappeared, replaced by bulbous but beautifully painted diesels: purple Erie-Lackawanna, Tuscan red Pennsy. We saw pictures of the red, yellow and silver Santa Fe and green and gold Southern railways.
Those wonderful, old Electromotive F-7s and E-9s, with their round fronts and Packard windshields also have disappeared, replaced by the box-on-a-raft road switchers that most railroads currently are painting soot-black.
Yet the fascination remains.
What is there about trains that keeps us hypnotized?
As best as I can parse it out, there are two important elements: The power is only the first. There are other powerful machines, and although they maintain their own hold on our imaginations – 18-wheelers and bulldozers, for instance – they don’t quite capture us like railroads.
The second element is the rails themselves. The raw power of a locomotive is channeled by the iron parameters it rides.
Unchained power is potentially destructive: Godzilla terrorizing the city. But the train is a dragon with a single-minded purpose. It has to move where the tracks will take it.
Perhaps it is mainly men who respond thus. We look to our fathers for strength when we are young and proudly declare our old man can beat up your old man. When we are young, the power alone is enough.
But as we grow older and presumably wiser, we come to suspect power. We see the destruction it can cause. Gang violence, battered wives, war and oppression.
And as we grow into our own adult bodies, we are both excited by the muscular potential and worried by the havoc we can cause.
The train then speaks to us on a mythic level. Its wheels grind the iron like geology, yet there is a course for it to take, a goal at the end, a purpose for such power.
Human beings can stray. The train’s every temptation is yanked back by steel to the straight and narrow.
We begin our lives with some idea of where we are going but soon are distracted by the happenstances of life. We have need of something track-like to wrench us back into focus and concentration.
The train’s life has purpose, defined by the twin iron lines coming to a point on the horizon. We gaze off and see where we are headed and know that we can use all the force we have, knowing it will be channeled and not dissipated.
There are other sources of this sense of enforced direction: It is one of the attractions of the playground slide or roller coaster. It is the emotion of driving through a tunnel. It is the river flowing inevitably in its bed.
I have ridden trains most of my life, from commuter trains going daily into Manhattan to transcontinental luxury trains – with panoramic domes cut into their roofs – curling past the Rocky Mountains. There have been subways and, lately, excursion trains that attempt to replicate the romance of the passenger trains that have disappeared as surely as brontosaurs and 5-cent hamburgers.
There is other poetry of the rails: the low decaying horn call of a distant train in the night, the sense of hundreds of people gathered in temporary community with common destination, the slow rocking clicketyclack that eases you to sleep in your compartment.
There are lights that scream past your window at midnight and clanging crossing-gate bells that change tone as you pass them.
There is scenery that morphs from flatland to mountain in a matter of hours.
But mostly there is the sense of immense, machine-thick metal power, heavy and headlong, hurling through the landscape along a course preset and immutable.