Boxcar Jim & Washington Post


NOVEMBER 11, 2002

Jim's Story by Jim on Railspot:

Veterans Day started out with a westbound DGNO rock train through Greenville at 0740. Power was CEFX 3780 (SD40-2), DGNO 4016 (GP38) and TNER 3862 (GP38) with loaded UP bottom dump cars. CORP 3806 was the Hunt Yard/Local switch engine on duty today.
Went back to my roost at East Greenville to do some paperwork and wait for the westbound parade. The first of three westbound on the KCS appeared at East Greenville at 0857. Power was 6617 (SD60), 6604, and 6620. I did not get a chance to trace this one so I will call it the same as Console 3, "6617 West".   Popped a couple of frames at East Greenville from the NE Texas Co-op parking lot. Things started to degrade from this point on.
I decided to chase to Farmersville and Copeville and then I heard the hogger (or conductor) call Wylie-world at 0915 to report a suspicious individual taking pictures and then report a tag number on my truck. I said "Oh well" and continued on to take a position on Business 78 above the rail and switched to a telephoto lens to compress the train on the long passing siding. By that time, my wife called me on my mobile phone to tell me that the Greenville Police had stopped by my house. She was upset (and I was getting a little hot) but everybody is suppositious until proven otherwise. 6617 West comes charging by Ranch Road and the hogger reports "He's following us and still taking pictures". I just wish that when he waved that he used all his fingers! By that time, my wife calls again and tells me that "the Commissioner of Railroads has called and wants me to cease and desist". I ask her to get the number from caller ID and I place a call.
Turns out that it is the Dallas Special Agent. We have a conversation and I tell him that I am just observing trains and photographing fall colors. I also mentioned "that you have an extra pair of eyes and ears out here this morning. He was very nice (wish that I could his name) and told me that "the railroad appreciated us out here helping out". I said the hogger was only following company policy and that I understood.
By that time I heard another horn and it was a following westbound train with pumpkins on the point. I wish that I had gotton the numbers but I was still a little upset because of previous activities and telephone calls.
Decided that I had accomplished enough rail fan activities today and headed east to Greenville. Looked north and saw a string of box cars east of Floyd, TX about 1037. Turned around and went to Farmersville to photograph Extra 730 (SD40), 629 and 655 .
The train passed Farmersville at 1057 and I decided to call it a day.
Jim Satterwhite


Ride, but Don't Watch
'Railfans' Drawing Police Attention in Terror Era
By Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 15, 2002; Page A01
On a balmy Sunday afternoon late last month, Richard Whitenight did what he often does on his days off: He went to a busy railroad junction in Fort Worth to watch the trains roll by.
But as he sat making notes about passing freight trains, two police cruisers approached. Over the next five hours, Whitenight -- who works for the police department in nearby Arlington, Tex. -- identified himself to the officers. Then he identified himself to the officers' supervisor, then a detective from a terrorism task force, then the FBI. They seized his trainspotter's notebook and grilled him about every mark and note in it. They searched his car and took photos of it, inside and out. Finally, he had to sign a form agreeing never to return to the location known as Tower
Whitenight is one of thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world who spend much of their time observing and photographing railroad operations out of a love for trains. In general, railroads have encouraged these "railfans" as long as they do not trespass or interfere with operations. Railroads even hold contests to use railfan photographs in calendars, and the Association of American Railroads has started a Web site to encourage the hobby.
But after the FBI announced last month it had credible reports that al Qaeda might be targeting railroads, a growing minority of railfans have been questioned and sometimes searched. A handful have even been threatened with arrest, for pursuing a hobby they have embraced for years.
Law enforcement officers and train crews have been told to be on the lookout for suspicious characters asking detailed questions about railroad operations, taking notes and taking pictures of trains. It appears the descriptions of "terrorist" and "railfan" are the same.
"It's an unfortunate coincidence," said Edward Hamburger, president of the Association of American Railroads. But he said railroads may be a terrorist target, and "we want them to know we're not a soft target. People have to recognize they will be approached, they will be questioned, they will be asked to move on."
"Railfanning, by its very nature, is suspicious," said John Bromley, longtime head of public relations for Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad. "It involves loitering, taking pictures and taking notes."
Some railfans are railroaders themselves, some museum curators, professors and others with a link to railroading. Others come from all walks of life. Some become minutely specialized, such as one group that follows the movements of a single type of diesel locomotive.
But most are like Whitenight, 54, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who simply loves to watch trains. In fact, until the FBI warning, dozens of railfans would regularly gather at Tower 55, an old switching and signal tower where main lines of the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe converge near downtown Fort Worth.
A lot of the train crews came to know the group, and often waved and smiled. "Some of the guys recognize us," Whitenight said. "They see us all the time. But now they've been told to report us."
Even though "train crews sort of know a railfan when they see one," as Bromley put it, Union Pacific has ordered them to report all activity that might be remotely suspicious. That includes people taking pictures of trains, even if they are doing so legally and are not trespassing on railroad property.
Railroad police or local police departments are then dispatched to check out the situation. Reports of suspicious activity are "up significantly" in the last few weeks, Bromley said.
"We certainly aren't out to destroy an American tradition of watching trains, but we have to be careful," Bromley said.
Norfolk Southern has taken similar steps, although Robert Fort, communications vice president, said railfans won't be subject to arrest unless they are trespassing. Even then police will generally just escort railfans off railroad property, he said. "Tact and diplomacy are the order of the day," Fort said.
Spokesmen for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Amtrak and CSX Transportation say they are not specifically targeting photographers but have asked crews to report suspicious activity.
Normally, police who encounter railfans simply check identities and record names and other basic information. But a few encounters go beyond that. Internet chat groups have been filled with stories of conflicts with police and railroad employees, including one Union Pacific conductor who ran up a bank to a public street to shout at a railfan to stop taking pictures of his train.
Jim Satterwhite of Greenville, Tex., president of Coastline Rail Services, was out photographing trains last weekend when his wife had a visit from police. It seems a Kansas City Southern Railway locomotive crew had reported his tag number. Shortly after the police visit, his wife received a call from a railroad official.
Satterwhite said in an interview that as a 20-year Air Force veteran who now works in the railroad industry, he understands the need for safety and security. But "when do we become prisoners in our own homes?" he asked.
Even before the FBI announcement, railfans said they had noticed an increasing police presence.
Joseph Suarez, 17, of Carson, Calif., said he and a friend were ordered out of their parked car a few weeks back while waiting for a train and patted down by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, who had trouble comprehending why their back seat was full of cameras, notebooks and train magazines. After his friend showed the deputy a business card advertising train photographs for sale, "that seemed to satisfy him a little bit." Finally, the deputy walked away, saying, "I don't have a problem with you being here." Nonetheless, Suarez said, they left the area and don't intend to go back for a while.
Railfans aren't the only suspicious-looking characters who are merely hobbyists. Planespotters scour the world's airports to record and photograph airplanes. Greek authorities recently arrested several British and Dutch planespotters and charged them with espionage. They were released last week by a judge, who said it was clear they were merely following a hobby. One big difference between planespotters and trainspotters is that it is much easier to get close to the hundreds of thousands of miles of railroads, while most airports are fenced off and guarded.
Even as police and the railroads view railfans with suspicion, Federal Railroad Administrator Alan Rutter says the railfan network could be "a real value" in spotting truly suspicious activity. Rutter said the government is already taking advantage of the intelligence-gathering abilities of railfans. In addition to perusing Web sites, a FRA spokesman said, the agency's field staff has begun asking people it knows to be legitimate railfans to report suspicious activity.
The railfan intelligence-gathering capability is formidable. There are numerous Internet chat groups that keep up with almost everything unusual that moves on the railroad, from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train to trains carrying nuclear casks to storage sites.
Those chat sites have been filled for weeks with advice on what to do about the growing police attention. That advice includes a caution that the railroads also stress: Don't trespass on railroad property. Many of the postings take a patriotic tone;. many others express anger. But the advice also includes ways to look unthreatening, by wearing a shirt with a locomotive on it, for instance, or carrying railfan magazines to show police officers who never heard of the hobby.
"As crazy as it sounds, you need to educate the cop about our strange hobby in under 60 seconds," wrote Todd Clark, the webmaster of
Clark said in an interview that, for the most part, railroad police are familiar with the hobby but local police "think it's bizarre that grown men would be out there taking pictures of trains."
Rutter suggested that railfans be "mellow" when approached by police. He said Whitenight was a good example of how to act: Cooperate, keep cool, and understand that "everything passes in time."
At the same time, he said the FRA now understands that it must help law enforcement agencies understand railfans.
"We'll try to do what we can to let people know that railfans are out there," Rutter said.
Most railfans take notes of some kind, often in a language all their own. "That ALBMDX-22 was 55 loads of mixed Toyotas and Nissans for the Midlothian unloading facility'' is one of the more jargon-free examples.
Whitenight said the police in his case "didn't even recognize our terminology."
"If even one of them had known what we were talking about," he said, "we could have cleared this up fast."
Clark said the Federal Railroad Administration obviously is watching his Web site, because an official contacted him in May expressing concern about a person who asked about the location of certain bridges and wrote in broken English. That person turned out to be a legitimate Swiss railfan.
The FRA also asked Clark to issue a caution on the Web site about being too specific about the location of bridges and tunnels. Most of his subscribers complied immediately, he said.
Some railfans are advising their brothers to remain undercover as much as possible, not looking like railfans, keeping the car out of sight, taking one photo and moving to another location. This is becoming known as "guerrilla railfanning."
"You mean like Poland in the 1960s?" said Nils Huxtable, a Canadian railfan who has traveled the world for decades taking pictures of steam locomotives, writing books and producing train calendars. In Eastern Europe years ago, he dodged the secret police to take forbidden railroad pictures.
Huxtable said he has started to avoid the United States for railfan activities. "It's just not enjoyable being in that atmosphere," he said.
2002 The Washington Post Company

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