All his life Lawrence Battley has loved trains. But the several hundred toy trains locomotives and the 1,000 toy passenger cars he owns were not enough to satisfy a "railfan" like Battley. So a few years ago Battley, a retired Army colonel bought his own train car for $12,000 - a 1949 tuscan red Penn Central dining and passenger car. Now, after putting another $12,000 into its restoration, he travels North America behind Amtrak engines in his very own train car - 50,000 miles at $1.50 per mile, plus switching and storage charges.
Another railfan, 26-year-old Washington draftsman Kenneth Brooks, spent two years' savings to cover 14.0773.3 miles of North America, on trains and subways last year. It was his best year riding rails, reports Brooks, but he was disappointed to learn that his train trek was not a record.
That distinction belongs to 78-year-old New Yorker writer Rogers Whitaker, who has riden more train and subway miles (than 1 million) and more varieties of rails (more than 300) than any other man in the world. Lately Whitaker has trained his eyes on a new conquest: the Washington Metro.
"I came down to ride on the Washington Metro the week it opened," says Whitaker, who writes about train travel for The New Yorker under the name E.M. Frimbo. "I saw railfan friends of mine from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia - all over. In fact, in August I'm coming back down again - by train of course."
When Congress abolished streets cars and filled the averages of Washington with busses in 1962, it marked an era of new transportation in this city. But for railfans - those devoted souls who choose oil over beer because that's the way trains do it - the famine began.
"It was like losing a girl friend," says Vernon Winn, a true Washington railfan who calls the 13 years between the end of street cars and the beginning of Metro "the gap." The federal government taketh away, the federal government oweth'."
Now that the federal government has payet-ed back, the riches of railfandom have been regained. For the area's estimated 1,500 known railfans - some insist that there are twice that many still in the depot closets - the new Metro system opens extraordinary possibilities.
"We've been leading hikes for them in the subway tunnels since 1970," says Cody Phanstiehl, Metro's director of community services. "And we've given them tours of our maintenance shops. But some railfans see no reason why we shouln't turn the trains over to them."
Words like "intense" and "aggressive" keep popping up when Phanstiehl descripes the community of people who worship the tracks trains run on. But it is not just a Qahington phenomenon. In Chicago railfans lie beneath rented subway cars examining the writing and mechanics, sometimes climbing into the enge. In Boston they ride up front in the open part of the car, checking the steering components. In New York, competition subway-riding has produced a record time for riding all 230.8 miles of track: 21 hours and 8 1/2 minutes, by Moyer Wieson and Charles Emerson, two railfans.
For the railfan, anything to do with wheels on tracks is game. Some fans trade transfer tickets as kids swap baseball cards. One Washington railfan has more than 1,000 time tables from different depots. Other travel hundreds of miles just to ride more miles on a certain subway or train. Some photograph everything about the trains, checking to make sure the doors or couplers are working correctly. In some cases, railfans even have been known to repair damaged track before company crews can get there.
"They're dedicated," says George Sanborn, transportation librarian for the Boston subway system. "But you really can't categorize railfans past that. Some are more interested in the new trains than the old, some are interested in just the history, while others concentrate on the brakes."
Not all railfans are employees of transit system, though many are. Lawyers, doctors, even Secretaries of the Navy (W. Graham Claytor Jr., who owns a full-size caboose, has one of the premiere collections of old toy trains) are found to be enthusiasts.
Nor are railfans confined to areas with big transit systems. The National Railway Historical Society, a nationwide railfan organization with more than 120 local chapters and 10,000 members, reports that one of their strongest group of fans is in San Antonio. The nearest electric rail line is in Ft. Worth, hundreds of miles away.
There are some ways to spot a railfan on Metro, according to Ron Deiter, a Washingtonian who writes a column for "The Timetable," a railfan monthly. Usually a camera is the first hint that he or she may be possessed by rail mainia. Fans often carry rail maps, or one of the railfan magazines folded in the back pocket. Occasionally a fan will give himself away and wear an engineer's cap. But on the whole, railfans are very shy, concentrating on the bibes of a good train or subway ride - unless you ask them a question relating to traindom.
"I love it when someone asks me, 'Hey, what's this thing?' or 'How does this works'," confesses Deiter, who managed somehow to get much of the Metro construction work on 35mm film. Just the other day someone asked me why are there three speedometers on Metro, thinking nobody would know the answer to that. Well, I not only told him what they were (the actual speed, the maximum speed for that track, and the speed restrictions, if any), but I explained how each worked within the overall Metro system. I sure surprised him," says Deiter, with smug satisfaction.
Two national publications, 'Railroad Magazine' and 'Trains', now devote part of their issues to new electrical systems like Metro. 'Railroad Magazine' editor and train nut Freeman Hubbard says asking for the number of railfans in this country is like asking "how long a piece of string is."
"You can't do that," said Hubbard. "They're everywhere."
Nevertheless, Hubbard's magazine has an "intensive" circulation of 36,000 while 'Trains' is closer to 63,000. In Washington there are two different National Railway Historical Chapters which govern activities in the area.
"I doubt there is a member in my chapter who hasn't ridden Metro from one inch of the rail to the other," says Dietrich. "Several times.
"We would like to have our own private train to operate. It would also be nice to be the first group to operate over a new portion of the line. In addition, we would like to have a complete tour of the control system."
Such requests are the kind Cody Phanstiehl deals with "almost daily." His mail is filled with simple desires, "Send me all about Metro." Phone calls from railfans ask for "the latest." One gentleman wanted to construct a toy model of the Metro system in his basement (thus he needed the blueprints) and write it off for tax purposes.
"It just seems you can't ever do enough for them," signs Phanstiehl.
Although he has denied any requests "to turn the trains over" to zealous fans, Phanstiehl realizes that railfan support is important to the future of Metro.When he speaks at public engagements on Metro he emphasizes their importance. Usually, says Phanstiehl, there is at least one shy fan, who sticks around after his speech, then approaches him sheepishly and says: "I'd give an awful lot to go behind the the scenes."
At other times a more outgoing fan will challenge him: "Which car did you say was made in Altoona in 1939 and rode when the 4876 brought the Federal into Union Station?"
And there seem to be new divisons of fans opening daily. Last week Phanstiehl got a call from a fellow who spotted one fan running up the "down" escalators and down the "up" escalators.
"He's a probably in ecstasy," note Phanstiehl. "Washington is the only city with escalators in every station."
But he feels the sting occasionally when he rejects a railfan. The day before the Blue Line opened an unidentified man called Phanstiehl.
"Will there be a prize for the first person on the first train of the Blue Line," asked the voice eagerly.
"No," said Phanstiehl.
"He was a railfan," says Phanstiehl.