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The lure of the rails

The Baltimore Sun

Sisters Kaetlyn and Mikaela Gordon visit the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum monthly, relish a ride on the rails and know their train lore. They raced to window seats with their father yesterday and settled in for a short trip.

"I have been about 400 times, and I still get excited," said Kaetlyn, 8.

Right on schedule, the bright red diesel engine departed from the museum's platform for the first of three rides yesterday. It pulled three coach cars filled with passengers, many of them children, enthralled with a railroad experience.

"There's the flagman, Gary," said 3-year-old Mikaela, peering out the car's window as Gary Brukiewa signaled to the engineer. "We always say 'Hi' to him."

Guy Gordon, their father, said, "We are here so much that everybody knows us."

The Gordons, of Dundalk, are longtime museum members. The girls can tell the difference between diesel and steam engines, point to their favorite exhibits and talk a little railroad history. They like the ride on Engine 1200, a nearly 60-year-old diesel model, but they much prefer the steam engine.

"That's like the Wild, Wild West," said Kaetlyn.

On weekends through this month, the museum is including a train ride in the price of admission. The promise of a trip on the rails can be a large pull for the museum, a great antidote to the winter blahs and a boost to what is sometimes a post-holiday slump in visitors, administrators said.

"We have never been to the museum before, and we were looking for something to get the kids out in the winter," said Kate Profet of Bethesda. "Like all 3-year-old boys, my son is really into trains."

So, too, is the weekend engineer, Chris France, who has volunteered at the museum for nearly a decade and has made as many as 18 short runs in a day. A half-hour before departure, he climbs the steep metal steps into the engine's cabin, tests the brakes and tunes the radio.

"Being an engineer is a bit of my childhood dream," said France, transportation director for a private school in Washington. "There is nothing today to match this equipment, and running a train is a welcome break from the workweek."

Passengers streamed down the covered platform. They shouted a rousing "All aboard!" with the conductor and stepped onto the train, bound for a small switch station a mile and a half down the track. They passed Carroll Park and Mount Clare Mansion while traveling along the first commercial track laid in America. They arrived back at the museum's signature roundhouse in about 20 minutes.

"The ride is more historic than scenic, but it's really popular with visitors," said Tania Mansour, a museum guide.

Engine 1200 chugs along at about 15 mph and will make three trips on Saturdays and two on Sundays this month.

The "worker" engine, built in 1950 for New York Central Railroad, rarely left the rail yard during its heyday. It can reach a top speed of 60 mph, but "that would be the roughest ride ever," said France. "You would be clinging to the seats. At 15 mph, you bang around just enough."

The Elliotts of Ashburn, Va., celebrated son Ben's 6th birthday riding the rails. Ben pronounced the day at the museum his "best birthday ever." Keefe Calil turned 2 yesterday at one of his family's favorite places.

"This is a great birthday destination," said Jeff Calil of Cheverly. "We really like the hands-on atmosphere. Children can interact, touch things and run around."

The cars were still decorated with wreaths and twinkling lights. The passengers sang along and clapped as lively holiday tunes were piped into the cars.

Crew members make the experience as authentic and as amusing as possible. France, in a blue cap and denim overalls, said, "The best part is waving to the kids and answering their questions."

John Barr dons a vintage conductor's outfit and walks the aisles, answering questions and joking with the passengers.

"If you don't have fun, we might have to throw you off," Barr tells the giggling riders.

At age 2, Alexandra Tobian is a seasoned rider. The toddler from Towson looked out the window and pointed to various landmarks.

"She can almost be the conductor," Aaron Tobian said of his daughter.

Alexandra brought her neighborhood friend Hadley Manista, almost 2, for her first look at the museum and a ride on a "choo-choo."

"What a great place for kids!" said Andrew Manista, Hadley's father. "They love running around the roundhouse."

Passengers applauded at the ride's end. Peter Thompson, 2, gave Barr a firm handshake and a "thank you" as he disembarked. He walked along the platform holding the hand of his grandmother, Diane Brown. The pair walked into several cars, glancing at the interior of stately Pullmans and a troop sleeper.

Brown, who worked on the Georgia Northeastern line, shared a little of her knowledge with her grandson.

"This day is Peter's Christmas present to me," she said. "We both love trains."

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