Dan Cupper owns more than 10,000 train timetables — little cards and brochures detailing the accommodations, times and appearance of trains; his oldest is from 1858. Ron Goldfeder and his wife collect kerosene lanterns that used to light the way for trains. Larry Shughart owns hundreds of American Flyer model trains. And you’re damn right they work.
These men have loved trains for years; and by love, we’re not just talking about the type of affection young kids have for toys gifted from their parents; we’re talking fanatical obsessions that take up every part of life’s free moments and the mind’s free space.
On Wednesday, that lifelong love affair hit a remarkable political climax as America’s most powerful railfan — President Joe Biden — stepped behind a lectern to outline the most ambitious infrastructure plan since Dwight Eisenhower. Moments like these don’t come along all that often; for lovers of trains, they are like a Halley’s comet. Naturally, the three jumped at the invitation from POLITICO to get on a Zoom call and watch it together. Copper and Goldfeder are old chums but Shughart, who they’ve not met, fit right in.
For just over 30 minutes, Biden laid out the broad strokes of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which included investments in things like roads and bridges, electric vehicles, clean energy, affordable housing and public transit. The three men watched it on a shared Zoom screen, taking notes the whole time. Cupper, bespectacled, with white hair, sitting in front of his beloved timetables, Goldfeder, also bespectacled with white hair, in front of dozens of train books and the lanterns, and Shughart, sans spectacles but also with white hair, in his bedroom because the trains have their own space in a barn out back.
They had, by that point, already heard the toplines of the plan. Cupper paraphrased a quote from Daniel Burnham, the architect of D.C.’s Union station, to describe his feelings about it. “He said ‘make no little plans, they have no power to stir men’s blood.’ And certainly what Biden has proposed is not a little plan, it’s a visionary plan. And I think that is one of its strengths.”
But by the time the president’s comments ended, they were left wondering: Had the first rail man in chief been inspirational enough?
“He’s going to need that broad base of support to get this done,” said Shughart. “He keeps calling it a jobs bill. This is a survival bill move. If our country wants to survive, we better have infrastructure.”
For all three men, the obsession with rail started young. “My great-grandfather and grandfather were both Pennsylvania railroad men, and from the time I was very small, I was exposed to trains,” said Cupper, the editor of Railroad History, the journal of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society (RLHS), which boasts it is the oldest organization in North America dedicated to railroad history. “Many people characterize [steam engines] as anthropomorphic.”
Before President Biden spoke, the three men sat around on their computers waiting, and things turned nerdy really quickly. They talked about what Cupper is putting on the cover of the next Railroad History (“a Union Pacific Big Boy” with lots of content celebrating th RLHS’ 100th anniversary and Amtrak’s 50th) and Shughart’s next big trip in November to Argentina for “steam nuts.” All told, the trip is 14 days, most of it spent on trains, naturally.
They commiserated about the lack of steam engines in routine service nowadays — diesel has taken over and those trains don’t have all the sights and sounds of yesteryear. All three share a frustration over the lack of investment in rail over the last few decades, leaving America behind other countries.
Biden eventually appeared on the screen and it quickly became evident that he was speaking their language. The way he discusses infrastructure conveyed a nostalgia for the past and excitement for the future that the true fanatics possess. He talked about reinvestments as not optional but necessary.
“Failing to make these investments adds to our debt and effectively puts our children at a disadvantage relative to our competitors. That’s what crumbling infrastructure does. And our infrastructure is crumbling. We’re ranked 13th in the world,” Biden said Wednesday.
Rail is a microcosm of America’s growing infrastructure investment needs. The backlog for passenger rail projects has reached $45.2 billion according to The American Society of Civil Engineers. And compared to other advanced nations, the U.S. system is painfully outdated.
Cupper, who spent eight years as a train conductor for Norfolk Southern Railway and four as an engineer, considers the premier rail to be the TGV in France. It averages about 168 miles an hour. In America, the one high speed rail service is the Acela Express — considered “bougie” domestically but an imposter compared to other countries. It can max out around 160 mph and hits an average of 70 mph between the cities.
A decade earlier, Biden tried to change that. As Vice President he touted the importance of high speed rail, money for which was included in President Barack Obama’s stimulus. But the initiative ran into Republican opposition, and even states that launched projects had to dramatically scale back their ambitions due to cost overruns. To date, no lines have been completed. It notably was not mentioned in Biden’s current plan.
As the trio discussed the topic on Zoom, Goldfeder confessed that he’s never ridden the Acela or the TGV. But he has gone on 200 steam excursions across the world. For those that don’t speak rail: that’s when you get on a steam locomotive, get dropped off so the train can speed by and you can take pictures and be captivated. He met his wife, who kept correcting him on dates and times and locations during the Zoom, at a railroad club meeting. After decades in the Air Force, most of that overseas (“England is a wonderful place for a train”), he’s now retired and in charge of recruiting for the society. His love for rail started as a baby in Chicago, where the elevated street cars kept so much of his attention that his father brought him a train set when he got back from WWII.
Among modern presidents, it is fair to say Biden has no parallel for his love of trains. He famously commuted from Delaware to Washington, D.C., daily for his entire 36 years in the Senate. He launched his first run at the White House in 1988 standing on the back of a train and even took a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania after that first chaotic general election debate last year. During the 2020 convention, one of the bio videos that organizers put together focused on Biden’s relationship with Amtrak workers.
This all made last week’s speech more exciting for railfans like Cupper, Goldfeder and Shughart. If ever a president was going to debut some truly historic rail policy, it would be this one. But Biden never actually talked about the amount of money he’s offering up for rail investment (though all three men know from prior reporting that there will be $80 billion for Amtrak, modernizing the Northeast Corridor and $85 billion for other existing transit). In fact, his comments about rail were rather brief.
As Biden left the lectern, Goldfeder pulled out his yellow legal pad of notes he’d been taking during the speech. “I did notice the first thing he mentioned when he went into details, the railroads were mentioned first. And he said something quite striking,” he said. “He’s talking about a coast-to-coast, high speed railroad passenger train. It’s rather breathtaking.”
But not everyone is sold. Shughart, a rail consultant jumped in: “He’s not going to build a high speed rail coast to coast with this money.”
“Well,” Cupper added, “he’s really talking about high speed being available from coast to coast in selected corridors.”
It just got deeper from there. They were under no illusion that rail was going to be the biggest chunk of the $2 trillion bill. They acknowledged it’s less than the roads and bridges portion. Goldfeder said “the word ‘enough’ hardly ever applies [to rail].” But he added, the $80 billion is “certainly a significant start.”
Cupper piped up: “Let’s talk about the next 50 years for Amtrak. They’ve never had the funding to do what’s needed. Highways have always had a gas tax, airports have a dedicated funding source but Amtrak has never had a dedicated funding [federal subsidy].”
Still, it seems they are just happy to be at the party, after two presidencies without enough focus or follow through on infrastructure. It’s a party that Shugart has made his life’s work. His obsession started with curiosity, “always wondering where that train is going, what they’re carrying, the mystery of it. That just a few people can move 10,000, 15,000 tons of stuff is just neat. That you can harness that much power.”
He started working for a railroad company that downsized after 9/11, but found a gig as a consultant and has done it ever since. Chatting with Cupper and Goldfeder, Shughart said it was “powerful” to hear Biden lean on that bipartisan history of rail support.
By the time the conversation ended, Cupper, Goldfeder and Shughart were hyped. They log off with the new information on Biden’s plans and fingers crossed that the administration can get some of it done.
Shughart has also emailed the other two (and this reporter) all the information necessary to sign up for his Argentina trip. The other two men seemed pretty interested. Even if Biden’s bill doesn’t come to pass, they’ll have that to look forward to.