By day, Chicagoan Ted Wolff is a landscape architect. Off duty, he is a member of what he calls an invisible subculture. Known as "rail fans," "trainwatchers" or the self-deprecating term "foamers" (because they foam at the mouth when they see favorite trains), they like to spend their free time trackside, Wolff said, watching trains come and go.
"It's on the Y chromosome, I think," Wolff said, laughing, explaining that male rail fans outnumber female ones. "It may be latent, but it's there. It got me when I moved to Chicago in 1979 because Chicago is such a railroad center."
In general, rail fans divide themselves into two groups: There are the trackside folks such as Wolff who keep logs of what they see. Wolff likens his group to birders who track species or sports fans who track players' averages. Some take photos, while others are content with their visual memories.
"Then there are the 'mileage collectors,' who take as many excursions as they can each year," said Steve Barry, managing editor of Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
Combined, Barry estimates that there are about 250,000 rail fans in the U.S. "They are predominantly male, but are all ages, from all walks of life and from all professions," he said.
As the reservations agent for Mid-America Tours in Elk Grove Village, Jim Weyrick caters to those who prefer to be aboard. Of the dozen train trips he organizes every year, the seven-day "Colorado Rockies by Rail" is the most popular. "Families, retirees and people who are afraid to fly" are his best customers, said Weyrick.
His rail-fan customers, Weyrick said, are people who know the difference between a deadhead (off-duty crewman) and a hogger (engineer).
Whether they belong to clubs or make solitary trips to the tracks, rail fans are quick to compare their favorite locations.
"Here, I like the Brighton Park crossing (in Chicago) and the Blue Island crossing (in Blue Island)," said Wolff. "But when my wife and I travel, I've been known to stop trackside in the middle of nowhere. She knows I will, so she always brings a book. She's a very forgiving woman."
Nick Kallas, of Geneva, prefers the Roosevelt Road bridge in Chicago, where the road spans Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Amtrak and Metra tracks. "There, you can see all the trains going in and out of Union Station," explained the retired teacher.
Other popular Chicago-area rail-fan spots include the stations or freight crossings in Blue Island, Dolton and Joliet and the more picturesque view of the trains crossing the Fox River in Geneva.
Illinois rail fans frequent Rochelle, where the Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF lines provide a steady flow of trains and the town has built a viewing pavilion. "I go several times a year," said Wolff.
Rail fans' eyes brighten when they talk of their trips to Europe, where the trains are "faster, smoother, more reliable," noted Wolff. His next vacation includes a train ride in Italy.
Rail fans who take photos are a subset unto their own. Many post their pictures online on sites such as davesrailpix.com.
"Some rail fans collect old timetables or old signs, but I take pictures," said Jim Burd, a retired steelworker from Dyer, Ind. "I have about 25,000 pictures. People come from all over the world to take train pictures in Chicago, but I think you get the best pictures in Indiana, where the trains go through the countryside."
Serious rail shutterbugs head to the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (railphoto-art.org), an online community that hosts exhibits, awards and an annual conference in Lake Forest.
The railroads maintain relationships with their fans, despite the occasional media report about the crazed fan, explained Jim Loomis, author of "All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide."
"There are some people who wander into the rail yards and steal (railcar) plates," he said. "But most rail fans observe the rules and are the railroads' greatest supporters. They're the ones who write Congress and ask for more Amtrak funding and for high-speed rails."
In 2006, BNSF launched the Citizens for Rail Security program, which welcomes rail fans who double as watchdogs. According to its website, rail fans have reported lost children, suspicious articles and stolen equipment.
There are no uniform rules for rail fans, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Rob Kulat. "The railroads own the property, and they police it themselves," he said. "We tell fans to stick to public areas such as bridges and overlooks. When in doubt about where you can go, contact the railroad. But if you are climbing a fence, you're probably trespassing."
Many rail fans trace their interest to childhood memories.
"I watched the trains in a junction tower by my house while my dad played checkers with the engineer," recalled Kallas. Changing times keep children at a distance from trains and towers, he added, so he supports train museums, where they can explore trains safely.
But for adults who understand the rules, nothing beats seeing the real thing in action.
"Seeing an old steam engine, with all of its noise, speed, thunder and smoke …" pondered Wolff, "well, that's really powerful."
East Troy Electric Railroad Museum, 1992 Church St., East Troy, Wis., 262-642-3263
Fox River Trolley Museum, 361 S. LaFox St., South Elgin; 847-697-4676
Galesburg Railroad Museum, 211 S. Seminary St., Galesburg; 309-342-9400
Illinois Railway Museum, 7000 Olson Road, Union; 815-923-4391
The Rochelle Railroad Park in Rochelle (rochelletourism.com) is at the confluence of the UP and BNSF railroads. Rochelle will host its sixth annual Railroad Days June 3-5 this year.
La Plata, Mo., has the Depot Inn and Suites (depotinnandsuites.com), railroad art gallery and a viewing platform where fans gather to watch the busy BNSF line.
Calling all rail fans
Below are additional resources for those who feel the allure of trains.
Central Electric Railfans' Association, where the "juicers" (electric railroad fans) hang out; cera-chicago.org
National Railway Historical Society has three chapters in the Chicago area; nrhs.com
Railroad Club of Chicago welcomes all railroad-specific fan lines; railcc
20th Century Railroad Club hosts excursions and speakers; 20th
railfanning.com links fans to excursions, photo ops, online forums and meetings.
railserve.com is treasure-trove of info that includes worldwide links to webcams, chat rooms and special events.
"All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide" by Jim Loomis. This primer tells newbie rail fans, for example, how to translate whistle signals.
International Railway Traveler (irtsociety.com) magazine offers luxury, first-class and steam rail tours with the world's
top 25 trains.
Passenger Train Journal (whiteriverproductions.com) magazine profiles U.S. railways.
Railfan & Railroad Magazine (railfan.com) is the fans' own publication, with current events and photos.
Trains magazine (trainsmag.com) includes attractions, trips and maps. Through its website, find J. David Ingles' and Kevin P. Keefe's 2006 article "Chicago's (rail fan) Hot Spots."
"Train Watcher's Guide to Chicago" by John Szwajkart tells fans exactly where and when to go, and what trains they will see at specific crossings.