What is it about trains?

`LOOK at the drive wheel, Laurie - it's taller than Grandpa!'' The man and his granddaughter were among some 50,000 visitors to Union Station in Portland, Ore., for RailFair. They came to remember trains, they came to learn about them, they came to look and hear and smell, they came because trains are, well, trains. I went because I was called. I was walking to the local grocery when I heard an imperious steam whistle from the direction of the station, a haunting sound like no other, a sound that you feel more than hear. I abandoned my chore and followed the call to its source, which turned out to be Engine 4449, a remarkable piece of machinery owned by the City of Portland and in good operating condition. I stood next to its thundering boiler and gaped. Goose pimples rose along my spine. Thousands of people were milling about, chattering about fireboxes and couplings and pistons and Pullman cars.

Old 4449 suddenly called out again with its huge voice, a thick, throaty bellow for which the word ``whistle'' seems puny. The sound hung in the air and fell heavily on the crowd. No one spoke. Few moved. A white-haired man near me rubbed the corner of his right eye with a blue and white bandanna.

What is it about trains? I have continued to wonder ever since that afternoon. Actually, I've been considering it in one form or another for a lot longer than that. When I was about six years old, my family and I took the steam train from southern Bolivia to the coast of Chile. It is one of the most remarkable railroads in the world, and I think that everything else in my life has been a disappointment in comparison.

A few years later, my father gave me a heavy 4-6-4 Lionel locomotive, half a dozen cars, and about 30 feet of track. Nothing I have ever owned has meant quite as much to me, and one of the strongest desires I have felt was a wish to be small enough to ride that train.

As I write this, I am watching people board Amtrak train No. 28, the Empire Builder, bound for Chicago. The lumbering passengers waddle with their bundles toward the train and I think of the thousands of miles and hundreds of hours I have traveled on trains - from Vancouver to Montreal, Tampa to Washington, Portland to San Francisco, Sydney to Cairns - but I still want to be on this train on this day, going to Illinois, going anywhere.

It is one thing to wallow in the feelings that trains evoke, but it is quite another to figure out what it is about them that seems so inherently right. I have decided that it has something to do with hope, something to do with the future, and maybe something to do with the human heart. I'll tell you why.

There is a sense of community on board a passenger train. Hundreds of people are confined to the grumbling innards of a great metal worm; in very close quarters they eat, sleep, snore, work puzzles, tell stories, and do the other things human beings do. The normal sense of personal space is radically altered. And something remarkable happens. People generally get along.

This is a pretty compelling reason for hope: Shared human experience can be pleasant, even among random strangers, if the participants are all receptive to the notion of a community. The sense of community on a train is reinforced both by the novelty of the environment and by the physical confines of the cars, but that reinforcement is a product of the mind, and there is no reason why it could not be replicated in, say, circles of government.

So perhaps the feelings of excitement and solace aboard a train are due to that hope and to a concomitant realization that the future need not be racked with contention and distrust. Perhaps it will be, but at least, the train tells us, it doesn't have to be.

And the train goes even further. Not only is the notion of community demonstrated in a positive manner, but as the participants look out into the Columbia Gorge or over the Andes, or across the South Pacific, they see some mighty good reasons to carry that sense of community off the train and into the world of dictators, greed, and hydrogen bombs. It is an amazing lesson to be taught by a couple of locomotives and a dozen coaches: The world is worth living in, and we can live here peacefully.

Perhaps I am reading too much into a mode of transportation. Perhaps I am allowing my own irrational attraction to clanging grade crossings and linen-napkin dining cars to influence my perception of the world and its inhabitants. But in a society where hope is hard to come by and frequently ridiculed even when found, it doesn't seem absurd to me to place a little faith on today's eastbound Empire Builder, which will be chugging up the Rockies in a little while.

The engineer of train No. 28 gives two short startling blasts of the horn. The diesels rumble and the line of cars slowly slips forward. A bell clangs. People look calmly out of the large windows of the lounge car - someone lifts a can of pop as a way of saying ``so long.'' I see dark silhouettes through the heavy glass of the coaches and sleeping cars. The iron wheels softly shake the earth with a deep cla-clunk. The throaty sound of the engines fades as the back of the last car glides away. There is a haunting silence when the train is gone.

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