Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Railfans
Eric Winick (EW): How many of us still love the thing that inspired us as teens? People change over time. They let go of things. Passion fades. Beset by changes in location, temperament, or circumstances, we move on.
Walter Zullig: We’re in Ossining, NY, at the Ossining station of the Metro-North Railroad, along the Hudson River about 32 miles north of GCT. On the right side is the Hudson River and looking up the hill you see the village and looking straight ahead down the tracks you see Sing Sing Prison.
EW: I’m standing beside my father-in-law, Walter Zullig – and no, we’re not waiting to board the next Metro-North train to Grand Central. We’re here to watch trains and take pictures of them. It’s not something I generally enjoy. But for Walter, these are more than just trains. They’re stories on steel wheels.
[Poughkeepsie train sounds]
EW: Walter isn’t alone. There are thousands of rail enthusiasts across the country. Many belong to organizations like the NRHS, the National Railway Historical Society, or the ERA, the Electric Railroaders Association. For most, railfanning is a hobby, something to do in their off hours, away from home and work. Others, like Walter, make a career of it. For years he served as Metro-North’s General Counsel. He’s amassed a huge collection of timetables and tickets, some of which were used to create the designs on the tables in the food court under Grand Central. His home overlooks the tracks of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, giving him the opportunity, several times a day, to watch trains from his own living room.
EW: Why was that interesting to you?
Walter: Well, it’s interesting. They use different kinds of equipment occasionally. This had two different coaches on it. Diesel engine has a different color scheme.
EW: One thing about railfans: they know how to find each other. In 1951, Walter was 14 and living in Maywood, New Jersey. He’d been taking pictures of trains and, as a way of making some pocket money, placed ads for his photos in Railroad Magazine. This caught the attention of Albert Holtz, two years his junior, who lived about five miles away. Here’s Al, recalling his first meeting with Walter.
Al Holtz: I remember seeing an ad in Railroad magazine; somebody was selling pictures of the West Shore and the Susquehanna and I was thinking, oh, that’s right up my alley, I’d like to see those and buy a few, of course, but I’m interested in seeing the pictures. So I made a trip over there – I was driven over there – and I met Walt for the first time there and we had a lot to talk about, alright.
EW: Walter and Al became friends and over time, they’d take trips together, around the northeast and up into Canada. Walter became involved with an association formed to fight the end of passenger service on the Susquehanna railroad. One day, while in DC to testify on behalf of the association, he met a train enthusiast by the name of Jack May, who was there with a friend of his, Julian Wolfe. Here’s Jack.
Jack May: There were streetcars running in a lot of cities then, that were discontinued later and one of them was Washington DC, and Julian and I decided to go down to Washington DC together to ride the streetcars. So we were walking down the tracks of the Cabin John line, when who should we run into, but this guy carrying a briefcase and a camera, by the name of Walter Zullig.
EW: The circle widened further when Jack, joined by his friend Richard Solomon, was photographing trains in New Jersey.
Jack: We rode one of the lines that ran from Trenton up to Phillipsburg and when we got off the train at Phillipsburg, there were these two guys photographing from sort of a bridge. I recognized one of them; it was Walter, who I had met about two weeks earlier and the other person with him was Al Holtz.
EW: In 1962, Al was attending law school in Carlisle, PA, when he devised an ingenious system for staying in touch with his friends and sharing information about their common passion. It involved the U.S. Mail, and a routing system that took packets from Pennsylvania to New York and New Jersey, as well as to an army base in Germany. It became known as The Circuit. Jack May.
Jack: Well, the world moved a lot more slowly in those days and really, it was a lifeline to the news of what was going on. The circuit allowed the members of it to clip articles from newspapers and pass them around so that we’d get a much better understanding of what was going on and, in many cases, faster.
Al Holtz: The idea was, pass it on to the next person, then you remove what you put in the previous time around.
EW: Al Holtz.
Al Holtz: So each one would add something and then, when you get around again, you take it out, so everybody got to see it in an orderly manner.
EW: Here’s an excerpt from the first letter, read by actor Adam Greenfield.
[READING OF 1st letter by Adam Greenfield]
October 19, 1962. Room 314, Molly Pitcher Hotel, 13 South Hanover Street, Carlisle, PA. To Carl Ehrke, Walt Zullig, Julien Wolfe, Al Schreibman, Rich Solomon, Jack May, and Dave Phraner. Subject: Circuit Distribution Plan. While the mailing schedule I’ve suggested is only a guide to keep the circuit from slowing down at any one person, I will send out only every Monday as a means to limit the circuit to a weekly pattern. EVERYONE’S COOPERATION IS ESSENTIAL IN DISPATCHING THE MATERIAL PROMPTLY!!! This means, when you receive material, pass it along at your earliest convenience (hold no longer than a day), mail directly – no diverse routings, and consider that the news is getting staler every day. If someone consistently delays this material, he’s not being fair.
EW: When you take pictures, where do you go now?
Walter: Along the Hudson, I like to get the river in if I can. There are a few good locations around Peekskill, Cold Spring, 55 miles north of Grand Central.
EW: Fifty years later, the Circuit is still making the rounds. It’s been pretty much continuous since ‘62, with a short break during Al’s service in Vietnam. These days Al dispatches both hard copies and emails. Snail mail packets contain a variety of items, including a letter from Al, who reports on his travels and what he’s heard from the others. The rest is information – articles, timetables, photos, postcards, and of course a routing slip.
Walter: There’s an article about weekend track work on the NY subway system disrupting the ‘7’ and the ‘F’ train lines. Then there’s Philadelphia area transit is mediocre in job access – there’s an article here from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Amtrak funding Philadelphia to New York work, which is $450 million for the project to speed trains up between New York and Philadelphia, that’s one of the articles. Another article about New Jersey transit announcing expansion of the quiet cars.
EW: I always liked trains. When I was a kid, I had a poster of the Boston subway system on my wall. I knew the names of all the stops on the Blue Line, from Wonderland to Bowdoin. When I got older, I’d travel back and forth to Boston almost exclusively by train, so I got an Amtrak MasterCard, for the points. I think it’s one of the ways Walter knew he could trust me.
Walter: Okay, on top is the routing slip; now this is every week, it’s circuit number 2494 and it says that it left Al on May 13 and Tony got it on May 17th and mailed it out on May 18th and I have now got it. I haven’t written anything on it yet, but it goes to me and then to Jack May and Dave Phraner, Jim Guthrie, Bob Campbell, Julian Wolfe, Bill Worth and Bill Worth returns it to Al and that’s the cycle that it takes at this point in time.
EW: One thing about the letters Al includes: they’re really detailed. Railfans have a thing for accuracy, so the letters can be a little, you know, technical. To give you a sense of it, here’s Al reading from actual reports filed by members of the circuit.
Al: Julien Wolfe made a round trip Dearborn-Chicago-Grand Rapids and return via Amtrak trains #351-370-371-352 on Wednesday and Thursday this past week. He phoned me at 9:55 AM ET from aboard Detroit-Chicago train #351 just after Battle Creek – stopped there at 9:42(due 9:19) AM – 23 minutes late – and we talked until it had departed Kalamazoo at 10:13 (due 9:50) AM – still 23 minutes late.
On Saturdays I stop at our neighborhood Subway shop for our Saturday dinners – a BMT sub. Last Saturday I mentioned to the owner when paying for my BMT sub that this is the last subway term still used. That perked his curiosity. He asked, “What does BMT mean?” When I told him he brought his brother over and wanted to know all about BMT, IRT, IND, etc.
Tony Fitzherbert arose very early Sunday morning to drive to Fairfield, CT where he boarded MN Meadowlands Football Special New Haven-NYP train #3137 via the Hell Gate Bridge at 9:30 AM. He noted he saw Walt Zullig photographing the train as it passed through Mamaroneck station.
EW: A staple of the Circuit is the trip report, which details every aspect of one’s travels – arrival and departure times, equipment, routes, and sometimes info about sites along the way. While everyone regulates his own level of detail, there’s not much that’s personal in the reports. They’re not really about who had a good time doing what. They’re more about how you got there – how you got around – and of course, how you got home. Here's Walter.
Walter: I take a little kidding about that from people who are not in the circuit who read the things I write. They say, what’s the difference if the train was seven minutes late or if the train got in twelve minutes early? Well, to me, that’s part of the story. Almost all the people who write these reports keep a record of what time the train left, when it got to where it was, and sometimes, some of the significant points along way. We were 28 minutes late in Savannah, and yet we got to Jacksonville on time. You get things like that, which show you more about the railroad operation and there’s some recovery time in the schedules. Details like that.
Al Holtz: What’s the equipment, what engine pulled it, what kind of cars were on it? What did you see along the way? Any special observations on stations and other activities?
Jack May: One of the beauties of the hard copy versions is that you can make notes… the reader can make notes and say, no, no, that’s not true, or oh, wow, that must have been awful, having to get up at 3:30 in the morning, ugh! And so on.
Walter: Yeah, I don’t like getting up early – I’m a night person – and if somebody writes, I got up at 4:35 AM, I put ‘Ugh! who the heck would want to do that?’, but you know, it happens.
EW: The future of railfanning is something of a question mark. It’s not what you’d call a young person’s pursuit. The whole idea of riding trains around the country – the world, even – it’s part of another age, another mindset. Talk to Walter Zullig about the building of the U.S. interstate system, and he can barely contain his disappointment at how it cut into rail travel. That’s how all these guys feel. To them, there’s nothing more exciting than spending time riding, watching, talking, and writing about trains. As for the future of groups like the NRHS, it depends to some extent on their ability to bring in new blood, which is to say:
Walter: They are altering the program knowing that if we keep going with business as usual, we’ll be out of business. We have to adapt to the times. I was a little surprised the other day when someone, a member in his high thirties told me, I don’t care to go to a RR slideshow, and I acted as though I was utterly shocked. Who wouldn’t want to go to a RR slideshow? (Laughs)
EW: Well, I can think of a few people. But that’s beside the point. There’s more to the Circuit than simply keeping abreast of the latest railway news. Al Holtz.
Al: It keeps us together, that’s one thing I find out about it. It’s a shame there are some people who have slipped off and we don’t hear much from them anymore, whereas being part of this, we keep together and I might say also about the cyber circuit, just the ability to bounce a letter to somebody at any point, it’s like being instantly in touch with them. It’s been great.
Jack May: I think it’s changed over the years. As we’ve gotten married and had kids, it has become much more oriented with the staying in touch aspects of it.
EW: Jack May, followed by Walter and Al.
Jack: Originally I think it was mainly for informational purposes and it was sort of fun to do and it was something that we probably waited for every week, for that piece of mail to be delivered by the letter carrier. Now it’s more or less to stay in contact.
Walter: Well, it’s hard to say. It’s both really. It’s definitely both. Friendship has a lot to do with it.
Al: As long as we’re together as friends and passing material around, it seems to be a great way of keeping up.
EW: Why is it important for people to understand the past, present, and future of the railroad industry?
Walter: Well, that’s part of the history of this country. The Railroads built this country linked it together way back in the 1860s. And if we don’t keep that story going and keep building on it for the future, you know, a big part of our history is gone, and we certainly don’t want that to happen.
EW: Recently, during a trip with my son to visit my wife at a conference she was attending in Boston, I found myself jotting down notes. I’d started on a commuter train in Swampscott, transferred to an inbound Green Line train at North Station, then changed to an outbound Red Line at Park Street. At each transfer point I noted the ease with which my son and I were able to embark, and the timeliness of each train. When I got home that night, I wrote up my findings as a report, then sent it via email to Al Holtz. To my surprise, he forwarded it to the members of the cyber circuit. I felt strangely proud, like I’d been accepted into an exclusive club. That may be the Circuit’s greatest contribution. Letting us know it’s possible to stay involved, serious, and dedicated to the things we loved as kids. Even after fifty years, it makes believers of us all.
Walter: Well, you have electric, multiple unit, Self-propelled trains run on the third rail as far as Croton Harmon, then there are diesel trains to Poughkeepsie, that’s 40 miles beyond electrified territory so they run on diesel. Poughkeepsie is 75 miles from GC.