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Taking time to watch the trains - Todd DeFoe

It was dark and crisp.

A railfan stood perched, staring down the tracks, with camera and scanner in hand. The sun began to rise over the horizon, blanketing the tracks with shades of yellow and orange.

Soon, the sound of a train horn broke the morning's silence; a light illuminated the dawn's darkness. Within moments the light grew bigger and brighter and before long, the camera started snapping.

The Amtrak train was in sight, hauling a train full of weary passengers, most just waking from an overnight journey. The wheels screeched as the train ground to a halt and the conductor lowered the stairs to drop off a lone passenger. All the while, this railfan and his dad stood on the platform, taking in the scenery and snapping pictures.

It's called railfanning n or to some train watching. I, like thousands of people, make a hobby out of watching trains travel across the nation's rail network, snapping pictures and trying to spot obscure railcars.

However, railfanning is more than just watching trains, though that is what it was on this September morning in Gainesville, Ga. As a history buff, half the fun is studying the history of a particular town and learning which railroads helped shape a particular region. It's taking a step back in time and seeing how railroads impacted the very communities they helped build.

And what's better than watching a train? How about riding one?

No doubt passenger trains today aren't a central means of traveling. But that hasn't stopped me. Determined to take a step back in time and enjoy a waning form of transportation, I've twice boarded a Washington-bound Amtrak train ? the Crescent ? to experience the mystique of rail travel.

True, it wasn't the quickest method of transportation, but for the avid railfan, it was the best. So what makes it worthwhile: There's the view outside the train ? scenes of America whizzing by the windows; the fine dining and of course the conversation with conductors at 3 a.m. in the lounge car. There's no sleeping for this railfan. Besides the lady sitting next to me has already sprawled out into my seat and has been sleeping for hours.

So, a trip is out of the question? Luckily, there are railroad museums. It's one of the few chances most people will have to take a step back in time and ride a train. Steam engines no longer barrel down the tracks, but there is nothing like the experience of riding a train pulled by one.

Todd DeFeo is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161or via e-mail at tdefeo@henryherald.com .