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COLUMN ONE

They're loco for all that motion

Studying, videotaping, riding -- 'foamers' are crazy about trains. They're also part of the puzzle in the deadly Metrolink crash.

October 01, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

"Basically, we sit around solving the world's problems and complaining about our jobs. Then a train comes, and everything stops. We all watch the train. Then the train passes on and we get back to it," said Jeffrey Bass, 48, who manages the parts department at a car dealership. "Everybody has their own interest. This is ours."

Rail enthusiasts have long had a delicate relationship with the industry.

"I kind of grew up with them," said Tom Dinger, a Southern Pacific and Amtrak engineer for 43 years, based in Southern California, before he retired two winters ago. "I think they're harmless. They just have deep affection for trains. It's kind of a strange phenomenon. But I never had a problem with them."

But there have been some aggressive railfans who have crossed the line -- trespassing to get a photo, for instance, even stealing pieces of equipment for souvenirs. Increasingly, railfans have become rail professionals themselves -- engineers, conductors, dispatchers -- which has become the source of considerable tension.

"There's been a kind of silent invasion," one Amtrak engineer said in an interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be "outed" as a railfan.

"I stay in the closet," he said. "I don't advertise too much that I'm a train buff, because I'll be lumped in with them, with the ones who aren't quite extremists but can't keep their interest sufficiently under wraps."

The Chatsworth crash -- and revelations that Sanchez was in contact with railfans while on the job -- caused a surprisingly caustic backlash against the hobbyists. On one website that is considered a must-read among engineers, an entry titled "The End of Foamers" was posted after the crash.

"This is a scary, high-stakes job where each and every one of us is at risk of being involved in a terrifying and catastrophic wreck. . . . Yet there are those people who act like they're running the Disneyland railroad or up on a stage," the post read. "If anything good is to come out of this awful week I hope it's the complete eradication of foamers from railroad property. . . . If you want to foam out, go to a railroad museum."

The rail companies have not figured out how to deal with railfans.

At times they have shunned them, as when officials erected an 8,500-foot-long fence to keep railfans away from the tracks near the Cajon summit.

On the other hand, Burlington Northern Santa Fe has begun a formal program that effectively deputizes railfans to keep an eye out for security threats. Some engineers have been encouraged to interact with younger railfans because they are seen as the future ranks of professionals, not to mention articulate lobbyists for the future of passenger rail -- a future that has not always looked bright.

The trend lines are on the railfans' side.

The hobby has exploded in recent years. There are railfanning magazines. You can download freight train ring tones. There are rail "cruises" on refurbished antique locomotives. There are hundreds of websites, on which hobbyists dissect the angle of a particular engine's exhaust flange or the letter that President Ford sent to Congress in 1974 while vetoing a federal railroad retirement benefits package.

Towns across the nation have discovered that although they are in the middle of nowhere -- perhaps because they are -- they have become popular railfanning destinations.

Rochelle, Ill., a town of 9,000 with a renowned freight crossing, built a park on an elevated piece of land where railfans can watch trains, complete with speakers broadcasting the transmissions of engineers and conductors. This summer, North Platte, Neb., opened a $4.5-million, 15-story-high platform where railfans can watch the action at the Bailey Yard, billed as the largest rail yard of its type in the world.

"We get people from every age group, from all walks of life. Everyone can make of it what they want," said Todd DeFeo, the Atlanta-based editor of www.railfanning.org, one of the more popular hobby websites. "It's a nice hobby."

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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