Writing the Trains

I have always had a fascination with trains. There is something about the lonely call of the train horn at night, the rumbling of the mighty engines, the click-clacking of the wheels on the rails – sounds that are both comforting and isolating, all at the same time. They are sounds that make you feel alive. They are sounds that cause you to wonder – where on earth is that train going, so early in the morning, or so late at night. They are sounds of an America past.

When we first came to the United States, by ship, from Australia – we disembarked in San Francisco, and boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe sleeper train which took us all the way across the country to Kentucky. I loved that train ride. There is no better way to see this incredible land, than by train. We traveled through mountain passes, through the deserts, we saw Native American tee-pees and cowboys. And for a little girl from Australia, who was used to Kangaroos and gum trees, these scenes seemed pulled right out of movies.

And when we lived in Kentucky, if I saw a train, whizzing by either through a railroad crossing, I would strain to see if I saw the legs of hobos hanging from the open doors of the box cars. I was always slightly envious of hobos, with their free lifestyle, hopping trains, travelling through wide-open spaces. I don’t see hobos anymore – haven’t seen any for years now.

But trains still hold that draw for me. I still love to watch them pass through, as I wait, stopped at the railroad crossings. I know most people feel a sense of aggravation having to wait for the long trains to pass through, but I love it, and the more cars, the better. And although hobos riding the trains, has all but died out, trains have taken on a new fascination for me – train graffiti. There is some amazing artwork travelling on those trains, brilliant pieces done by people who have no other canvas on which to work.

It turns out freight writing began back in the late 1960s, but really took off in the in the 1970s, and has been flourishing ever since. And I know as an adult, I should be horrified by the defacement of the rail cars, but the precision, and beauty of this graffiti is amazing! And to think most of this is done with enormous time constraints, and the fear of getting caught and jailed, makes it even more impressive. Of course, the train companies are horrified, it takes boatloads of money to clean these trains.

When I first started taking photos of the graffiti – I went to the train yards, to see if they would let me on their properties to get some photos. I stopped at the Union Pacific train yards, and they said I wasn’t allowed in, but I could “accidentally” take some photos as I was leaving. I spoke to a wonderful fellow, John, who has worked with the railroad since retiring from the Navy. He is a Crew Driver, he drives the crews to the trains – wherever they might be. John was such a nice fellow, and explained to me how everything worked. Coordinating all the trains sounds like a logistical nightmare. He told me where I could wait for the trains, as they left the train yard, so I could get some really good photos, while the train was still moving slowly. He even let me take a picture of him for this post.

I then went to the BNSF trainyards. They were not so nice, and in all actuality, the guy I talked to, was downright grumpy – he told me to get off the property. He did however say, if I wanted to take photos of the train, I could go down the road a bit, and take photos from there, but I couldn’t stand in the dirt, by the tracks, I had to stand on the road. This guy did not let me take a photo of him.

I don’t know if any of you have loitered around train yards, but they are not located in the best of neighborhoods. And so for the last couple of weeks, I have been hanging out across from homeless encampments, first thing in the morning (just as the sun is rising), to catch the trains as they leave. I figure all the people who reside in those encampments, are probably sleeping off the previous nights imbibements, and so I am fairly safe. I did think about taking my huge Great Dane with me for protection, but I decided that wasn’t a very good idea, as there would be nowhere comfy for him to lay down.

And so here are some of the photos I have taken. Please note that the artists are very careful not to paint over any of the box car’s identifying codes. I know many of you are thinking, “Well, they shouldn’t be painting anywhere on the car, it’s illegal, it’s vandalism, and it’s destruction of property – and why is S.D. glorifying this criminal behavior?” And I say back to you, reinstitute art classes in the school, fund art programs for these amazing artists. And besides, look at Banksy – he is a graffiti artist, and people go nuts over his stuff. There are brilliant artists out there, with no other way to display their talents. So, no I am not condoning the behavior, but I am appreciating the product.

17 replies »

  1. I love trains too, the mournful haunting sounds of the whistles in the distance, wondering where the people on the trains are going, what are their stories?

    • Exactly!!! My new friend John, he tried to explain to me how it all worked, how the trains got from one place to another – it must be a lonely job working with the railroad, but so…American!

    • The trains are so much easier to ride in Europe, here it is expensive. I priced a train ride to Mississippi several years ago, and it more expensive than flying. What the heck?!

      • I know! I nearly fell off my moral indignation when I saw the price of train tickets! They were so high I needed oxygen, Kendal mint cake and a team of Sherpas!

      • Ha-ha!!!! They are putting in a high speed train that will travel from LA to San Francisco in several hours, but the tickets are like a $90 a ticket or more (probably more – because the train wont be finished until 2028) – you could still drive cheaper than that – of course it would take a lot longer. Who is going to pay that?

  2. You explain the allure of trains so well. I didn’t grow up around them and have rarely ridden on one, and yet I can feel the magic in your description. The graffiti is amazing. The second from the bottom is my favorite – so stunning. I’m glad you got to take some “accidental” pictures. 🙂

    • Thank you so much!!! Now I hear the trains in the distance and all I can think is – oh my gosh, I might be missing some great shots of graffiti!!! The second one from the bottom is my favorite too. It has depth, and the color combination is fabulous!!!

  3. These pieces of art are fantastic! I am behind you 100% regarding bringing back art into the schools and let’s start appreciating the real artist that are starved for places to present their work. The art displayed on these trains are inspiring! Thank you so much for taking a chance and going into some neighborhoods that are not the greatest in order to get these photographs. I applaud you! 👏👏👏

  4. Trains are a romantic part of U.S. history in movies and some hearts, yes, S.D. In many cities they are still a vital part of everyday life’s transportation needs, too.
    As for the hobo jumping on a slowing train, that way of life has given way to the homeless. Those souls appear on the side of many of our roads here, asking for spare dollars from drivers in cars as they slow at intersections. I can see the similarities.

  5. Love those pictures! We are taking the kids on two train rides, one this month and one in December. I’m not a train person, I suppose, but I’m really looking forward to those rides.

  6. That must have been amazing crossing through America by train when there were still cowboys and native Americans…
    just a quick question, I know you live photography, so can I find you on Instagram?

    • Hi my friend!!! SO good to hear from you. I tried Instagram several years ago, but never really understood it. Hope all is well with you and your family!!!

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