Riding the rails one ‘fine’ day? Close, but no cigar

Through travels I have visited many a place. Canada and Mexico are among the vast number of North American sites and points trekked to. But it was one cross-country journey that stands out from the rest, it taking place in the mid-1980s, with primary and secondary destinations being: Baltimore, Maryland and Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Has history

As to the latter, the town is located in south-central Pennsylvania and like Baltimore in neighboring Maryland (home of the Star Spangled Banner), also has historic roots. Partly if not fully accounting for this is due to its western neighbor Gettysburg, you know, the legendary battlefield site where Union and Confederate soldiers exchanged fire in one of the fiercest battles to ever be fought on American soil and that famed address, you know, the official document pronouncing the end of the Civil War. What I was doing one town over had absolutely nothing at all to do with history. Try transportation. And, in this case, it’s a train we’re talking about. That’s right. A train!

Extra special

Okay, so why a train and why Hanover?

It was several years before that I met a railroad train dispatcher and, Hanover, at the train depot as it turned out, is where that initial meeting took place.

Why I was in Hanover back then was no accident as it all had to do with my seeking out an at-that-time interest of mine: trains. The on-duty dispatcher approached me as he could immediately tell that I was a train aficionado. That trait is not one that is easily missed, especially to another interested in the same. Out of this chance encounter, a friendship developed.

A few years later, in the summer of ’86, I think, we, meaning myself and another rail enthusiast, were completely taken aback when the two of us received invites for a ride-along (more commonly known to those in the hobby as a ‘cab ride’) on a train departing Hanover early one Saturday morning. The run for my dispatcher buddy was required and being that he would be doing such he took it upon himself to extend invitations to two fellow train buffs to come along for the ride, I am guessing, out of the kindness of his heart? On the day of this event in question, the intent here was that the three of us would depart Hanover, ride the train into Baltimore and then go back. Of course, this was all contingent on the proper paperwork being filled out and signed by an authorized railroad official on-site. Should you be wondering, no way was I going to let an opportunity like this, slip by.

On the drive over from Baltimore early on ride day, all morning long the excitement in the air had been building and the closer we got to the point of train-trip origination, the more reality sunk in that this was, in fact, really going to happen. As for why the trip at all, this had to do with my friend’s becoming familiar with the territory for which he would be conducting train-dispatching duties. Unlike passenger trains which have set schedules, freight trains, on the other hand, typically don’t, but this was not just any freight train. And, because of this fact, it was critical that our arrival in Hanover in general and at the depot in particular, be prior to the train, our train, leaving. That was the thinking, anyway.

Sad dispatch

As fate, dumb luck would have it word came down through channels that permission to board the train for the ride, unfortunately, was denied. Ultimately, what would have indeed been a rare opportunity for travel in this manner, at this time, at this place and on this day wasn’t to be.

Though it hadn’t been communicated at the time, later explained was why the deal fell through. I completely understood what with the ramifications and all should something have gone horribly wrong. I think management just wasn’t willing to risk that possibility.

Making tracks

Once the disappointing news hit home, the question was what to do. Arrived at almost immediately was the decision via automobile, to pace the train headed for Baltimore, since that’s where we were going anyway.

The trick here was to keep in relative close proximity to the Baltimore-bound train, always making sure to stay far enough ahead to be able to stop in time to be ready to take pictures by or at a near-the-railroad location when the train showed up. The train itself was made up of a long string of freight cars piloted by a four-unit set of diesel locomotives. (The relevance of this information will become quite obvious upon your reading on).

At any rate, at all along-the-way photo stops made, the background and/or foreground scenery made the entire experience that much grander. With the focal point, of course, being the train, I know I couldn’t have asked for any more or done better in terms of picking a subject to photograph and that the air was crystal clear that day made the whole experience that much more satisfying.

Harking back, I can recall but two locations where good pics were had. One was somewhere along the line at a clearing to Hanover’s east. We stood at a spot back a ways from the track, somewhat higher than the track elevation itself and filling the foreground, a cornfield.

The second photo location situated west of Baltimore at a place named Glyndon and in relative close proximity to another small community with an even more curious-sounding name – Boring, had a more urban look and feel to it. There, the track itself was adjacent and parallel to an in-town road, once again situated slightly higher than track level.

After finding that ideal vantage point between road and rail, a lowly so-called “weekend warrior” was out “pounding the pavement” (read: “jogging on the road in back”) heading in our direction. She had inquired as to whether a steam train was coming through. I replied in the negative asserting that the train was being pulled by diesels.

Probably not the response she was expecting, the runner, out for the mid-morning jog, (sorry, I can’t resist) railed: “Big deal!” or something to that effect. I must have been thinking: “Aw, what would she know anyway?!” If I was, it was probably best that I held my tongue, which I did.

Suffice it to say, dispatcher and company, locomotives and all wheeled by in grand fashion making for what could actually have been a postcard-picture-etched-on-film grab.

Missed it

At Port Covington (the halfway point in the run), meanwhile, our arrival was met with train nowhere in sight. Were we too early, too late, where was the train? Too late, obviously, as dispatcher and company, locomotives and all had come and gone only this time with a whole different set of freight cars in tow, Hanover bound.

That the general public could tag along for rides inside locomotive cabs, sad to say, that’s now part of history, too.

There are probably a thousand other ways to spend half a Saturday. But, quite honestly, I can’t think of one any better, thinking back, despite our being denied a cab ride.

This notwithstanding, being out and about in some pretty amazing and scenic countryside in air that day that was second to none, that’s like having one’s cake and eating it too.

And, that I managed to get some nice pics all the while, this made the entire experience, escapade (if you choose to call it that), that much better!

Image (top): Charles ORear, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Dec. 10, 2019 @ 8:05 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.