The gateway drug for train addiction is called Thomas.
“It starts out with Thomas the Tank Engine,” said Andre Ramsey, 16. “Whenever I ask somebody why they like trains, it’s always Thomas.”
Thomas is a talking locomotive in books, movies and TV shows.
Ramsey and 11 other teens are experiencing the real thing this week as participants in RailCamp. The annual program devoted to all things rail is put on by the National Railway Historical Society, a rail preservation group.
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One is being held in Newark, Delaware, and the other in Tacoma.
RailCamp is open to high school juniors and seniors interested in rail history, preservation, maintenance and operations.
“These kids are all rail buffs,” said camp director John Cox. “Up to now, their experience with railroads has been standing there at a crossing, watching the thing go by.”
On Tuesday, the boys spent all day at city-owned Tacoma Rail on the Tideflats.
Splitting into groups, they switched boxcars, learned how to maintain a locomotive, watched rail operations with the yard master in the facility’s tower and learned how to drive a train in Tacoma Rail’s simulator.
“When you’re using the simulator it looks like PlayStation2,” said Ramsey, who’ll be a junior at Tacoma’s School of the Arts in fall. He’s the only local kid in the group. The others are from Idaho, Kentucky, Vermont, Pennsylvania and other states.
On Monday, the kids rode a Sounder train to Seattle, then traveled on Link light rail, the Seattle Monorail, street cars and finally took Amtrak back to Tacoma.
“We pretty much covered all passenger carrying modes of (rail) transit,” Cox said.
On Wednesday, the group visited the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad and Logging Museum.
“They learn all kinds of arcane skills, like how to make parts for a steam locomotive, track maintenance,” Cox said. “They’re actually out there pounding spikes.”
They’ll spend Thursday at Sound Transit’s maintenance facilities in Seattle.
“We go from the 1890s to the 21st century,” Cox said.
On Friday, they’ll be working at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie.
RailCamp has been running for 25 years. This marks the fifth year for Tacoma Rail’s participation.
“We have some who actually get a job with railroads,” Cox said. “Some are here just because they like trains.”
“I’ve already had two guys hit me up for a job while they were here,” said Tacoma Rail superintendent Dale King.
King told them to go to college if they want to enter management or go to railroad training school for conductor’s certification.
King said Tacoma Rail recently hired five conductors — the entry level position — out of 120 applicants.
On Tuesday, RailCamp participant John Haubrick, 16, was sitting in the engineer’s seat in a Tacoma Rail caboose.
Normally, an engineer rides in and operates a train’s locomotive. But this caboose has been reconfigured to be a locomotive simulator. It has all the controls of a locomotive but doesn’t go anywhere.
The simulator’s bell rung, its horn blew and air brakes wooshed as Haubrick “drove” the locomotive. The video screen showed a bridge over the Puyallup River. Tacoma Rail’s entire system has been digitized for the simulator.
When Haubrick was 3 his grandmother gave him a Thomas train. Now he has a 12-by-6-foot Lionel layout in his basement in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. It has towns, little people and lights that glow.
“Kids walk down there and their eyes just light up and they’re like, ‘Wow,’ ” Haubrick said.
He volunteers at his local train station — built in 1848 — but there isn’t much to do.
“I mow the grass, take out the trash, little things like that,” he said.
This is his second RailCamp.
“I want to work and get greasy,” he said. “I want to be an engineer for Norfolk Southern Railroad.”
He readily admits he’s different from his friends.
“A lot of them want to go be lawyers, office jobs,” he said. “…That’s just a job. I want to do the work.”
An alien among his peers, now he’s with his own kind. The train kind.
“Everybody wants to be here,” Haubrick said. “It’s not like school and a classroom where there’s kids dozing off. Everybody wants to be here and they’re interested and want to learn.”