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Saturday, February 2, 2013
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Knowing that I was once a serious railroad enthusiast (and still am, to some degree), a friend from my Zen community recently loaned me a photo book relating to railroads, Railroad Voices by Linda Neimann and Lina Bertucci. This was not the usual dry historical tome or railroad photo album aimed at buffs and modelers. Railroad Voices tells a story of two women who encountered modern railroad life in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, a time of much change and contraction in the railroad industry. The book speaks to an artistic and intellectually engaged audience; both women have unusual combination of academic achievement (PhD’s) and experience as train crew employees, being among the first women to break the male-only barrier in that job category. Their book does not assume any particular interest in the railroad industry; the railroad serves mostly as a stage for the unfolding of various social vignettes. The railfan can come along for the ride, but shouldn’t expect that hobbiest interests and sensibilities will be catered to.

Thus, from a railfan perspective, I was initially disappointed with Railroad Voices (but not to say that its stories and photographs are entirely devoid of technical interest). Also, as a former switch tower operator, I would have liked some pictures and stories from inside the switch towers (like the ones seen in Ms. Bertucci’s photos from Milwaukee). Ditto for the dispatchers who directed train movements, plus the signal maintainers who kept the switches and signals working.

But no, this is a train crew’s story told in words and photos. A story well told, albeit from a somewhat unusual perspective — i.e., from the eyes and ears of women who are among the first to encounter the gritty, previously male-only world of railroad operation.

Ms. Neimann’s stories regarding the tough life of train crews in the final decades of the 20th Century is pungent and compelling. She directly confronts the often distasteful and unpleasant aspects of railroad life in a changing post-industrial America. Once upon a time, railroad passenger trains served the business and political elite of our nation, while its tracks and freight trains were a necessary fixture to most every functioning working class or middle class neighborhood (not to mention the farms and pastures of the heartland). But times have changed, and much of today’s remaining rail lines run through the undersides of modern life, thru places populated by illegal immigrants, the untreated mentally ill, homeless outcasts and criminal transients (far from the benign drunken hobos of 1950’s suburban recall, think of the cute miniature hobo circling around the open-top freight car on the Lionel layout under the Christmas tree).

So, it’s more sad than surprising that Ms. Neimann’s description of railroad life is generally negative and tragic. The hours on the freight runs are long and unpredictable, managers often push labor beyond reason in the face of relentless competition from 55 foot tractor-trailers and inland barge lines, and the dangers of killing or being killed by a string of 70 ton freight cars never ceases. But what is especially tragic to me is Ms. Neimann’s ultimate lack of any pride or consolation in being part of something as tangibly big and important as railroads still are to the American economy.

Once upon a time, blue collar workers felt a sense of importance when going to work for the railroad; you were no longer another “townie” at the local grocery store or cleaning toilets in an elementary school. You were part of something stretching from coast to coast, the veins and artieries of American commerce. The work of a train crew was always hard and dangerous, but there was a sense of importance and meaning that many if not most railroaders once shared. This spirit still seemed to exist when I worked on the Erie Lackawanna line in the early 1970s, but mainly with the “old heads” (and the many railfans who managed to hire out on the EL back then).

Over time, these people were largely replaced by a younger, more cynical generation weaned on distrust, encouraged by the events of the Vietnam War and Watergate to believe that “the whole system is corrupt”. We railfans could sense the change. In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s many railroaders accommodated railfan interest. Sure, there were always the SOB’s who would run you off the property (often so that they could pursue their “Rule G” violations, i.e. using intoxicating substances on the job). Some others wondered aloud why intelligent people with cameras would waste their time and energy studying and recording a world that was falling apart. I recall an old Lehigh Valley line employee saying that the railroad hobby was “like watching a man die of cancer”.

But most of the old fellows and even some of the younger ones seemed complemented by our interest. We rail buffs helped to affirm their sense that what they did was indeed important. How many garbage truck crews have people following them, taking movies and admiring the details of their work? Or bus drivers or sewer cleaning outfits, for that matter?

Ms. Neimann by contrast is a railroader of the 1980’s and 90’s, a time when her attitude about railfans became much more common: “the brakeman stares out the window, wishing he were going to be home tonight, and angry at the rail buff because he constructs a fantasy, while the brakeman must live it”. (It’s surprising that she doesn’t use the derogatory term that railroad crews developed for rail buffs in the 1980’s, i.e. “foamers”; as in people so crazy that they foam at the mouth.) Her anger here is just as much with an enterprise that no longer seems to believe in itself, in its own inherent worth and necessity. Even into the 1970s, railroads painted their freight cars in catchy colors and adopted logos to impress the public with their “can-do” spirit. The Chessie System had the sleeping kitten in the big “C”, the Southern “serves the south” and “gives a green light to innovation”. The Union Pacific was “the automated railway” that “can handle it”. And right up until the disastrous Penn Central merger of 1968, one predecessor road (the New York Central) painted its boxcars a snappy jade green and called itself “The Road to the Future”.

We’re now in that post-Penn Central future, and the few railroads that survived are mostly profitable. Warren Buffet owns BNSF, one of the big-4 American systems. And yet, railroad management mostly turns away from public observation, painting their engines black or dark blue with gray or dark brown freight cars, ornamented with initials and numbers and little else. This is a far cry from the big “Santa Fe All the Way” monikers or the “Ship It On The Frisco” emblems of a half century ago.

So, its not surprising that railroad employees themselves now shy away from public attention. For both owners, management and workers, the modern railroad attitude appears to be that “we still make money and are in demand, but that could change any time.” Such an attitude would not be unfounded; for example, the bigger trans-ocean ships that will soon be allowed through the re-built Panama Canal, huge tractor-trailer trucks powered by cheap natural gas, and the decline of coal usage due to global warming and improving green-energy options could cause another round of railroad contraction in the near future.

This book does have a “female touch” to it in its focus on people versus the historical or technical details that most railroad literature concentrate on. The typical railfan or academic book might throw in a few human interest stories as an interesting sidenote, but Railroad Voices concentrates the camera lens and writing pen on people and relationships. In one chapter, Ms. Neimann visits an ex-railroad crewman who is a Native American chief with a ranch where he continues to conduct tribal rituals. Ms. Neimann makes a visit to his ranch and seems captivated by “native spirituality” and its innocence from the social corruption and exploitation brought about by the European invaders, a corruption reflected in her experiences as a laborer. But then again, perhaps she has some mixed feelings when she is required to move from her lodge room to a special house where women must stay when having their periods and kept apart from men (because their spirits temporarily become “too powerful” for the male native shamans to properly do their work).

Another big difference between most male-authored railroad writing and Ms. Neimann’s approach is that sex and love life are kept apart from time on duty, not discussed for the most part. Whereas, Ms. Neimann is fascinated with the graphic (and partly fictional) sexual braggadocio engaged in by many young rail workers amongst themselves. And she shares with the reader a fair amount about her own lesbian relationships, albeit in a more subtle fashion. This is not a typical railroad book, and Ms. Neimann offers more than I wanted to know about either kind of sex story. But then again, her reflections on how relationship concerns distracted her temporarily one day while looking out for movement signals from a locomotive is something that we all go through, in one way or another. It is part of being human.

I’m glad to have had the chance to view and read Railroad Voices, but I have since returned it to my friend, and don’t plan on buying my own copy. With regard to my own railroad interests, I look forward to living in the past, to buying more books and movies about the “golden years of railroading” when trains meant a lot more to society. But then again, Railroad Voices is an interesting experience and a good reality fix, a reflection on the hard and cruel edges of modern society at large. Ms. Bertulluci and Neimann provide an increasingly rare look beyond the entertainment front that digital technology has created for the “successful” classes — a world view dominated by Facebook, Xbox, Netflix, NFL, etc. Railroad Voices serves a purpose by looking into the un-pretty and uncertain part of America that makes necessary things happen, but with such cynicism and spiritual degradation. Perhaps women are all the more qualified to see and describe that degradation, even if (or especially when) not expressly trying.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:10 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m not sure exactly how to approach this blog. So I’m just going to comment. One thing I find myself thinking about is horses. Yes, horses. Approximately 150 years ago or so, I think if anyone had told another that the horse would not be used any more for transportation in our country – and even in most countries of the world – people would have tho’t one completely crazy. I find myself wondering if, as automobiles became the mode of transportation, people bemoaned the loss of the horse as transportation as much as it seems railfans long for the “old days” of the railroad.

    Then too, I find myself wondering, very many times, just how the American Indian would take some of our bragging about the “advance of civilization” that the white man brought to North America. On the inauguration day of President Obama, while I was very proud of our country and even of Obama being president, I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly what conflicted emotions American Indians had when they heard and saw all the celebrating for our country. I get myself locked in a maze of conflicting concepts, tho’ts, and even emotions. Thus, I tend to think that Ms. Neimann had a point about the Native American chief who was also an ex-crewman on a railroad.

    I also found myself astounded at the fact that (albeit, if women more often the past than now) were routinely excluded from men and other people in some societies because they were “contaminated” by their periods; now it turns out that American Indians excluded women because they were “too powerful” when they had their periods! Somehow it seems that in the end the *real* problem with men, when it comes to women, more likely is that the men worry that the women might end up taking over power from men — and men definitely don’t like that idea. (And I can’t help but think here of the fuss the men made in Congress with Hillary Clinton just recently; but when it came to her successor, he was greeted with open arms. I say something’s wrong with that picture.) Once again, it seems that whatever happens when it comes to the men/women societal relationship (women contaminated or powerful), the rule for men seems to be, do *not* let women get power. It seems to me that is exactly the underlying tho’t of a lot of men, whether they realize it or not. They sure seem to be afraid of women.

    Then too, I just can’t help myself wondering about your comment about “living in the past” when it comes to the “ ‘golden years of railroading’ “: Two things come to mind here. 1) I tend to think that men of a certain age become very nostalgic for the “good old days”. OK, that may be just how they are. Fine. 2) I wonder how “living in the past” coincides with the Buddhist concept of living in the present. (Or am I completely wrong about that?) Not a criticism, just a tho’t and maybe more of just a comment.

    Lastly, I wonder why a book, written by a female, would not have a “woman’s touch”. What is wrong with a “woman’s touch” – except that it is not one you prefer. But I don’t see it as a reason to condemn the book for either its content or its quality. It may not be a book that suits you. No problem with that. But then again, when it comes to a book, it seems that if one is going to review it, one an objective look at such things as the contents, how the contents are presented, etc., would be the approach.

    It seems to me you came down quite hard on Linda Neimann and Lina Bertucci; I feel compelled to “defend” them. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 3, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

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