Railfans

There’s a fascinating description of railfandom in the Los Angeles Times that, unfortunately, uses as its hook the media-fueled hysteria that teens were text messaging the engineer shortly before the recent Metrolink crash. The possibility that the engineer was texting minutes before the crash is continually reported in a manner that invites readers to suspect it was happening immediately before the crash. Yet there may be no connection: the Metrolink may have been miles from where the crash occurred at the time the messages were exchanged.

That aside, it was fun for me to read about another fandom and its specialized jargon. Kevin Standlee, a great train enthusiast, will probably get a kick out of the article, too.

The most die-hard are known as foamers — a term believed to have originated as an insult, used to describe people who get so excited at the sight of a train that they foam at the mouth. Some refuse to use the word “foamer.” (These are sensitive people and not without reason; in England, “trainspotting” is a euphemism for useless activity.) Others have appropriated the word for themselves, an exercise in a kind of geek pride.

And, if anything, railfans are well ahead of us when it comes to convincing the public to underwrite their fanac:

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 could buy a lot of bricks for the Tucker Hotel for $4.5 million.

Update 10/1/2008: AP reported today, “A Metrolink engineer sent a cell phone text message 22 seconds before his commuter train crashed head-on into a freight train last month, killing 25 people, federal investigators said Wednesday.” See also CNN. Never mind my fairness defense… Thanks to Leslie Turek for the pointer.

7 thoughts on “Railfans

  1. I know those terms — railfandom has its own specialized jargon just like SF fandom. There seem to be quite a few railfans in SF fandom, too. It’s possible that both fandoms attract similar personality types. I did a panel at a BayCon years ago about SF & Trains and it was a packed-out room with at least fifty people in it.

    There are probably a lot of people who work in the railroad industry who are railfans as well; however, it appears to be part of the industry culture there that you’re not supposed to like your job, and it’s bad form to express any enthusiasm for trains. Indeed, you’re supposed to hate your job. Why people would work in the railroad industry — where many of the jobs are dirty and dangerous and require working at all hours in all sorts of weather — even for the pretty good pay available if they really hated it is beyond me.

    People have asked me why I don’t work in the railroad industry myself. Indeed, I might be seen as working for “the enemy,” as I’m a computer program (“logistics solutions engineer”) for a supply-chain management company that is owned by Con-Way, a trucking company. I say that if I’d been in college at a time when the rail industry was seen as anything other than a slowly dying field, where the only challenge was deciding what line to abandon next, I might have done so. There were little career prospects there in the 1980s, unlike today, where I would recommend rail as a growth field. Indeed, the community college where I did my first two years of higher education is now affiliated with the “Modoc Railroad Academy,” which turns out people ready to go to work running trains.

    In my own case, I’m not sure I’d end up in an operating role (engineers and conductors). Based on my temperament, I expect that I would have found myself as a dispatcher instead. And given the way the railroad industry has consolidated, that means that if I wanted to stay employed, I’d probably be living in Omaha now, and would probably have not become involved with SF fandom as we know it. In many cases, the attitude of railroads is, “You don’t need a life; you’re married to the railroad.”

  2. That the engineer had sent a text message immediately before the crash was reported within a day or two after the event. Before that there was speculation, and even now it’s only speculative that this caused the crash, but I’ve seen nothing that could be described as hysteria on the subject, certainly not in the LA Times news reports, or in any blogs that I read on the subject. Whatever may have been said elsewhere, this wasn’t unjustly fueling it.

  3. What word would you say fits the overly emotional hype many reporters have used to draw attention to this story. It may not be hysteria, but I’d hate to have to live off the difference.

    Yes, there were news organizations that handled the story with care.

    The day after the crash, September 13, the Orange County Register was one of the earliest print media sources to report:

    A Metrolink official said it was “unbelievable” that anyone would text while driving a train.

    But Nick Williams, who lives near the crash site, said he exchanged three text messages with the engineer Friday afternoon, the last one at 4:22 p.m., about a minute before the trains collided.

    A syndicated New York Times story, on September 15, quoted this caution from an NTSB investigator:

    Higgins of the safety board has said reports of a driver distracted by a cellphone had proved false this year in the case of a fatal trolley accident in Boston.

    And the Fox News account, run on September 15, was typical of various responsible reports on the early steps in the NTSB investigation:

    Federal investigators said they will seek the cell phone records of two teenagers and a train engineer as they probe whether text messages factored into a fiery commuter train crash that killed 25 people in America’s worst rail disaster in 15 years.

    But on the same day (September 15) the Boston Globe
    dramatized the story:

    Federal rail investigators said Monday they would go to court to get an engineer’s cell phone records to determine if he was text messaging when his commuter train slammed head-on into a freight locomotive, killing 25 people.

    San Diego 6 TV news, on September 16, seemed to think it was not “too soon” to assign blame for the crash:

    While conceding “human error” by the engineer was responsible for the crash — failing to stop at a red signal — a Metrolink official said it was “unbelievable” that anyone would text while driving a train, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators said it was too soon to conclude what caused the tragedy.

    But 15-year old Nick Williams, who lives in the area where the crash occurred, said he exchanged three text messages with the engineer Friday afternoon, the last one at 4:22 p.m., about a minute before the trains collided.

    The Christian Science Monitor, on September 17, headlined a safety threat in this headline, “L.A. Metrolink crash puts focus on dangers of texting / As officials investigate whether the engineer sent messages, California’s governor weighs a ban for drivers,” and this lead:

    The nation’s worst commuter rail disaster in four decades – a Metrolink collision with a freight train that killed 25 and injured 135 here Sept. 12 – is spotlighting the issue of the safety of text messaging in an age of hyper-connectivity.

    Dangers of texting …going to court… juxtaposing reports of text message with Metrolink and NTSB responses as if it is another case of government denial of damaging facts (which in this case it was clearly not, to any sensible reader.) It aggravated me because in the ever-accelerating contest to spin the story, I was sympathetic to pieces like this one in the Los Angeles Times on September 19 that was protective of the teens who sent the text messages (which may have been undeserved, in light of yesterday’s news):

    They splashed into the public’s consciousness after the crash, when some of them went to the site and spoke with a television news reporter. One of the teens showed the reporter his cellphone, still containing short messages from Sanchez.

    “It was an innocent thing to memorialize” Sanchez, said Speer — a way to show the public that Sanchez was a good man and a dedicated professional who managed to find the time to interact with the public while doing his job.

    By the time the story reached the airwaves it had become something very different and very stark: that Sanchez was sending text messages while on the job.

    The teens — who believe that factors other than text-messaging contributed to the crash — feel blindsided and burned by the TV report and the ensuing public response, Speer said. The worst of it came on Internet sites, where people anonymously attacked the teenagers — even suggesting that they had played a role in the tragedy.

  4. I’m not trying to pick at the definition of words: I said that nothing I’d seen fit your definition of hysteria. I had not seen everything.

    I still haven’t, but I agree that it would be tacky of the CSM to hang a whole background discussion of the dangers of texting on this still hypothetical question. I do not, however, see anything out of line in the San Diego tv station highlighting the testimony of the boy, who seemed (and turned out to be) reliable, against the assertions of Metrolink and the NTSB.

  5. As I expect you know, the Metrolink spokesperson quoted here saying it was “unbelievable” that an engineer would be texting while operating a train had already given a statement acknowledging Metrolink’s responsibility and saying it was human error — the engineer’s error. In that context, I assume she honestly found it unbelievable that texting was the cause, she wasn’t defending the engineer. Since Metrolink did backtrack, and the spokesperson quit or was fired a day or so after this quote, you make a good point that the media was justified in trying to keep them honest. But I believe the spokesperson’s quote was misrepresented by the San Diego tv station.

  6. In the article from the San Diego station that you quoted, the acknowledgment of “human error” is right in the same sentence as the spokesperson’s comment that texting was an “unbelievable” reason. So the context is right there and not hidden, and the witness’s testimony that immediately follows is relevant. The question of whether the wording of the article represents the spokesperson as defending the engineer vs. just finding it genuinely unbelievable – this question is so subtle I find it impossible to parse. You could read it either way, but that’s because the facts permit you to read it either way. I don’t see the wording of the article pushing it one way or the other. The apparent fact that what she found “unbelievable” seems to have actually happened casts no light on her motives for saying so; still less does putting forth, in the article, the evidence.

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