I SLIPPED OUT of the office on Wednesday's blessed warm and dry afternoon. The last of the Jan. 25 icecap had melted. There was a tease of Baltimore spring in the air when I landed in the 2500 block of Sisson Street, atop an ancient railroad bridge.
There, in the heart of the old Remington neighborhood, I was on a mission to watch the railroad trains I hear all the time from my house. A fellow railroad fan piloted his blue Ford Taurus to this crow's nest -- the CSX tracks climb the Jones Falls Valley hill and cut across the mid-section of Baltimore's geography.
Some people think Baltimore has relinquished its status as a railroading and port city. This is a false impression. Trains are constantly busy tending the harbor's tonnage.
As if to prove the point, within 30 seconds of arriving at our viewing station, my friend called out, "There's the headlight." No waiting for trains here. Indeed, a set of three brilliant train headlamps sliced through the thin February light. "Snowplow," my friend called out. Indeed, the CSX loco was fitted with a steel shoveler that would have been the envy of the Public Works Department.
The freight was a real beauty -- all mixed cars -- lumber from Quebec, kaolin tank cars from Georgia, citrus fruit from Florida, tractors from some John Deere plant. The train was headed downtown on tracks that curved gently in the direction of Reservoir Hill and Mount Royal Station.
We were elated -- a case of instant gratification. But, like two 12-year-olds with an early dose of spring fever, we wanted more, lots more.
My friend suggested we jump in the Taurus and race the train to the place where we could spot it again -- a couple miles away at the end of the venerable Howard Street Tunnel, at the Warner Street grade crossing due south of the Ravens' stadium.
The question was -- could we, in city traffic -- outrun a big train going downhill, a train with no stoplights going though a tunnel under the streets of Baltimore?
Students of Baltimore geography know that it doesn't take long to slice through the city if the traffic lights are with you. If they aren't, Memorial Day will be here sooner.
We fled south along Howard and picked up Martin Luther King with enough time to note the cleared meadow at Perkins Square where the public housing apartments recently stood. No light. On we charged. Not a sign of red. We had a brief pause at Baltimore Street and left a tractor trailer in our rearview mirror as my friend maneuvered the Taurus to the elevated section of Russell Street.
There, my heart sank. I could see an empty expanse of the railroad tracks my train would have to pass. I was sure this mixed freight was in Halethorpe in Baltimore County by now.
My heart also sank at Bayard Street, where a one-way sign on the opposite side of the street seemed to prohibit the turn that would take us to our destination. But, on closer inspection, we realized that the street converted to one-way status over there -- not where we wanted to pounce.
We were soon at Warner Street, where the crossing gates hung high. PSINet Stadium loomed in the distance, as did an urban landscape of old paint factories and warehouses.
The weather lured out another train spotter, a retired B&Oer; with a scanner and camera. No, we had not missed our freight, he informed us. Expectation raced.
Within minutes, the bells were clattering and the gates lowered. Then came the whistle -- loud enough to be heard all over downtown, Pigtown and South Baltimore.
We'd won handily.