Introducing a new generation to the joy of train watching


THE OTHER DAY, FIVE of us crammed into a periwinkle-colored Volkswagen and dipped down the Lafayette Avenue hill in search of a Washington-bound commuter train.

We weren't trying to catch it. All we wanted was a look. Better yet -- we needed to wave at the engineer, see the silver cars roll by and observe its red marker lights being swallowed by the yawning Baltimore and Potomac tunnel's mouth.

There are few diversions as cheap as Baltimore train watching and -- if the traffic's slow that day -- as time consuming. You sit. You wait for that distinctive sound. The big delivery can roar by in a minute or stretch to four or five if it's a long, plodding freight. Then this mechanical vision disappears, and you have to decide whether to sit out just one more. There are no gift shops, restaurants or admission lines to deal with; only tracks, and maybe trains.

Train watching is not everybody's idea of a fun game, but once you've succumbed, it's hard to quit. I know. I grew up waiting for trains -- and streetcars -- to pass.

By age 4, I could tell the difference between the beautiful blue and gray coaches of the Baltimore and Ohio and those dingy red Pennsy passenger cars. I grew up with stories about my family's old Fallston summer house near the fabled M&P.; I watched the Western Maryland trains being soaped and hosed down at Hillen Station.

My father battered his Dodge's tires as we bumped over the Canton Railroad's waterfront tracks. No trip to Fort McHenry was complete without a lengthy tour of the big freight yards at Locust Point. We really hit big-time when a passenger train derailed near the Frederick Avenue Bridge in Southwest Baltimore. It was a Sunday afternoon around 1956, and I got to see local railroading gone amok. Great stuff.

So, I was delighted the other week when my sister Ann and her husband, Chris, decided to entertain their 2-year-old Paul with a trackside afternoon.

My brother-in-law brought the VW to a halt at the spot where the Jones Falls stream goes into a concrete tube under the Howard Street Bridge. Seated up front, my father remarked how this was his pick as the best place to watch trains in Baltimore. The old B&O; (today's CSX) and AMTRAK (formerly the Pennsy) cross each other here.

The only better spot, he maintains, is the Laurel racetrack, where, if you get tired of horses, there are plenty of speedy CSX freights passing behind the grandstand.

As we marked time there that gray afternoon, I realized how family rituals get repeated. This very place was our personal platform 40 years ago. It hadn't changed much, but I think there might be more train traffic today.

I had my doubts that our 2-year-old would-be rail addict would react as his grandfather and uncle wanted him to when a train passed. Little Paul didn't break out in big waves. He did get the point, however, which is half the game. But a carful of adults yelling out, "Look! Look!" most likely only confused our pupil.

When his attention flagged -- he was especially adroit at disemboweling a stapled AMTRAK schedule booklet -- we moved on to another location. When the trains don't arrive, it's better to select another venue.

That part of the city has a number of tried-and-true train-spotting vistas. Although Falls Road near Penn Station is my favorite, the North Avenue light rail station is not bad. It has an ample parking lot where the railroad police can't chase you away.

This time of the year, because the leaves have just about fallen off the trees, it is also possible to catch some heavy CSX traffic through the city.

That day, we were rewarded for our attention and patience. Five big freight locomotives roared along the old Belt Line just after two light-rail trains passed. The four adults were now hoarse from calling out, "Look, look!"

Then Paul reacted appropriately. He started to drift into the Land of Nod. I can't say if it was his instructors' ardor or whether it was a case of train-induced boredom. Or maybe it was just nap time.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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