For the last couple of decades, I’ve spent much of my vacation time riding Amtrak’s long-distance lines across America. The polite term for me is “railfan”—someone who loves to ride trains. An extreme railfan is known as a “foamer”—someone who lives to ride trains. I’ve met plenty of such people over the years.
Foamers know schedules by heart and can tell you not only what kind of engine is hauling the train but the name of the conductor. Amtrak devotees fit several other archetypes as well. The practical riders live in small towns far from major airports and wait on platforms in the dead of night, pillows in hand, to board a train that will keep them connected to the rest of the world. The scared-of-flying bunch is a special breed—on one of my trips, actor Billy Bob Thornton, who placed himself within those ranks, was a fellow passenger. The I-just-hate-flying set also has many members, with a shared disdain for the misery that represents so much of today’s air travel. I’ve met loads of retirees, young parents toting kids who have been raised on Thomas the Tank Engine, and scores of Amish and Mennonite families who see trains as an appropriately antiquated mode of transport.