September 20, 2003

Train Riding As Sport

When I first met Rachel, she said she was sporty. I thought that meant she went out running and biking a lot. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I found out that the British version of sporty means you hang out on a barstool with your best mates and down a couple of pints while watching cricket on the tele. So much for my introduction to British sports.

Today, Nathaniel and I found out about another British sport, train riding. You’ve probably heard of train spotting because of the movie by the same name, but train riding is probably as new to you as it was to me.

Rachel is back in the States for a week or so straightening out the cats that we left behind (and who are now going to be shipped here for the remainder of their quarantine period), and I’ve got the two kids by myself. I opened the local paper to see what was happening on a Saturday. “Nathaniel, do you want to take a ride on a steam train?” Well I didn’t have to ask twice. So while the baby was down for a nap we packed up, read a couple of Thomas The Tank Engine books to get us warmed up, and took off as soon as Sebastian stirred.

Bodmin Station is an old spur line that was closed down in the 60’s when the British rail system went through some major consolidation (many old-timers still hold a grudge against the government because of it). Be that as it may, the old Bodmin Station, while no longer in active use (i.e. you can’t catch a train to London from there), was full of people today. Hundreds of them. Normally there are a couple of steam engines that go the 3 miles between Bodmin Station and Bodmin Parkway, but this was “Diesel Gala” weekend, and not only could you drive a diesel engine, but you could eat a special “Diesel Gala Breakfast". I’m pretty sure we were glad we showed up in the afternoon.

Driving a train is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I was a little kid living next to the railroad tracks at the north end of Chicago. I kept threatening to take Rachel to Portola, 75 miles north of Lake Tahoe, where you can rent a diesel engine by the hour (at about $150/hour). But here it was for just 3 pounds. It was a little tricky pushing Sebastian around the train yard in a stroller, and there’s the odd issue like where can you leave him when you’re driving a train, but we didn’t let something like a baby get in the way, and drive the train we did. First you fire up the engine (which gives off more soot and smoke in a minute than your car probably does in a year). Then you step on the deadman switch. Then you open the throttle. And finally you let up on the brake. Wow, 50 tons of steel barreling down the track at 3 miles an hour! Sure it was only up and back about 400 yards, but we decided we’d definitely be back to do it again soon.

After driving the engine, we hopped on the train that was going all the way to Bodmin Parkway and back. So let’s get this straight. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon, there are lots of other things to do with the day, but I’ll be darned if there weren’t 300 people on the train with us. Just what are all these people doing I’m wondering.

But it wasn’t until we got to Bodmin Parkway and the engines had to shunt to another track to move ends of the train, that I finally understood that this wasn’t an anomoly, it was a national pastime. There were dozens of people standing around watching the engines hitch and un-hitch. Ok, sure, we were there too, but we’re out of towners who don’t know what else there is to do yet. These people definitely looked like they were serious about their trains. And if you ask for an orange vest (or better yet, bring your own), they let you walk down on the tracks and shoot photos from up close.

I never did see Trainspotting, but I guess I’ll have to after this afternoon’s outing.

Posted by: Frank @ 11:22 pm — Filed under:

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