I caught a northbound freight in Richmond, VA, but it was going to take so long to change crews that I took Amtrak instead.
Three years had passed, a pandemic had come and receded somewhat, and I thought yet again it was time for a freight train ride somewhere, anywhere. Having sold out for a job on the East Coast decades ago, I was resigned to undramatic, flat scenery.
Over the past two years, I had made some desultory attempts nearby but without success: the Baltimore Bayview yard and Hyattsville, MD. The latter was a particular waste of time because CSX upgraded the tracks long ago, making the trains too fast to jump, but I lazily hoped against hope to find a train stopped for clearance or the like. The last failed attempt was in late November, when in a bit of Murphy’s law, I found two repairmen adjusting a crossing signal. At a time like that, there would be no trains, period.
It was time to venture a little farther and try a different starting point.
On a Saturday morning in early December, I reluctantly took Amtrak all the way down to Richmond, two hours south, to try to return north by freight. The buses have been free there since March 2020, possibly till 2025, but on weekends, none of them serves the Amtrak station. It itself is close to nothing humanly useful.
On this damp, slightly muggy post-rain Saturday, per Google maps, I had to walk 1.7 miles to Broad Street, ride a bus 5 miles, and walk another 1.3 miles to Acca yard. So I did.
It had been a seeming eternity since I had been outside the taxpayer-fattened DC metro octopus. Whenever I step outside it, the rapid drop in income is always startling.
I bused and trudged past pawnshops, gun stores, and payday lenders before finding the doctor-prescribed access point to the tracks, behind a business district. Since it was Saturday, I could wait inside a construction site without being rousted by workers.
I had spent probably less than 20 minutes on the unfinished ground floor of some future office building, communing with stacked supplies on pallets, when a northbound mixed train that had been idle on the I-195 median came puffing through for its crew change. The recent redesign of grainers almost doomed my ambitions from the start. The train presented more than a mile of unridable “suicide” empty stack cars, sealed boxes, roofless gondolas that aroused bad memories, and one newfangled grainer after another lacking the cubbyhole that hoboes have used for decades. I was looking at the train, dismayed by the march of time and of car construction, when finally an old-school grainer with a cubbyhole creaked past.
I ran after it and grabbed it and let it yank me aboard as usual. It was immensely satisfying to feel a steel grab-iron in my hands again, stand on a rocking steel floor, and fold myself into the hiding place that barely holds me and must drive taller hoboes nuts.
We steamed a couple miles, if that, into Acca yard and halted for the crew change.
I heard the breaking air, the giveaway that the units had decoupled from the train. I was guardedly optimistic that the units would recouple relatively soon and a fresh crew would carry me out of here. After all, we were on a main. Passing Amtraks and hotshots buffeted me on both sides. I figured sooner or later my own train would stop occupying its main too.
My eager anticipation of a highball out of town dwindled as hour after hour withered, impossible to buy back at any price.
It was not cold, but it was supremely dull. I lack the wherewithal to stay entertained in the dark in a space where I can’t even sit up, though others have downloaded e-books and entire movies and who knows what. The prospect of reading my old-school hard copies by the light of my phone did nothing for me.
I had committed hours in years past to waiting out a train crew, but this year I was neither broke enough nor patient enough to repeat those experiences. Waiting in daylight is far less taxing than sitting in the dark of night without entertainment.
After I had spent four hours in my steel cubbyhole a two-hour Amtrak ride from my metro area, I decided to stop hemorrhaging time. This trip was not penciling in.
I jumped off, crossed the adjacent main without being clobbered by a hotshot, and trudged through thorny brush and a parking lot and past TopGolf, a multi-story driving range. The golfers were clearly enjoying themselves like normal humans, whaling on golf balls, not knowing or caring they were facing Acca yard and free of all desire to ride industrial machinery.
My morning’s journey now unspooled in reverse. Walk to Broad Street, catch a bus five miles, and find the cheapest motel on Broad near the station. The last Amtrak of the evening had left hours ago, so I had to crash somewhere till selling out on Sunday morning.
I wolfed down a veggie burger at an outlet I miss in the DC area, Burger King, and took the cheapest possible room at Knights Inn — a reeking smoker’s room where the TV didn’t work and someone had punched a hole in the drywall. It still beat waiting in a grainer, possibly till Sunday morning if not afternoon, for a new crew to haul me to Baltimore.
Editor’s Note: Republished with permission from NorthbankFred website.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast.