The trains are different here.
That’s the assessment of at least one of the teenage rail enthusiasts who spent Tuesday learning about operations at Tacoma Rail on Tacoma’s Tideflats.
“I’ve never seen such clean engines,” remarked 16-year-old Doug Capuder of Madison, N.J.
Within the last two years, Tacoma Rail bought three new locomotives and gave others a makeover with the help of federal grants. The new and refurbished engines are designed to meet federal air quality standards.
And there’s another reason the distinctive red-and-white locomotives look good, explained Mike Klass, marketing manager for Tacoma Rail, the publicly owned rail freight line that serves the Port of Tacoma.
“We actually take the time to wash them,” he said. “They probably get more TLC than some of the ones on the bigger railroads.”
Doug and 11 other teens from around the country learned about everything from eco-friendly clean machines to intermodal shipping Tuesday as they took part in a week-long camp sponsored by the Philadelphia-based National Railway Historical Society, an organization dedicated to rail preservation.
During the camp, the teens experience life on Tacoma freight line and get a glimpse of passenger rail service at Amtrak in Seattle. They’ll visit the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie and see the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe and Mineral.
Students are bunking at Pacific Lutheran University during their Northwest rail experience.
Many of the teens are veterans of train camp, and some have already spent time working on various railroads.
Doug works on historic trains back home. And he’s also exploring a career in transportation engineering.
While most of his high school-aged friends are fascinated by cars, he’s an unabashed train fan.
“No one considers the role they play in history, in the development of our country,” he said. “Most people just consider them when they’re in the way at a crossing.”
The annual camp has been held on the East Coast for many years, but this summer was the first time it came out West.
Melissa Bauer, a 17-year-old from St. Marys, Pa., attended rail camp in Scranton, Pa., several years ago.
Peering behind the scenes at Tacoma Rail was an eye-opener for her. Back home, she said, a freight train passes through her small town only twice a week. She estimates she’d have to travel a few hours from home to spend quality time with freight trains.
Her attachment to the rails comes through her family. Her grandparents founded the Bucksgahuda and Western Railroad, a 2-foot-gauge steam railroad back in St. Marys. She was at camp this week with several cousins, all with railroading in their genes.
“I grew up with it,” Bauer said of her interest in railroads. “I came to camp to learn more.”
John Grocki, a 19-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., said he developed a love of trains while watching a once-a-year circus train travel through his neighborhood. James Spang, 15, of Toledo, Ore., said he’s fascinated with the mechanical aspect of railroads.
“I love how it all fits together,” he said.
Up in the Tacoma Rail tower, Melissa’s cousin, Mitchell Smithbauer, 15, watched train-master Jud Bruton juggle connections and constant radio communications among rail and shipping workers.
“It can get really convoluted,” he said. “My job is to mitigate the flow.”
Mitchell, who has been helping out with his family railroad since he was 5, said he’s not sure whether he’d want a career in rail transportation.
“It would kind of take the fun out of it,” he said.