Shnay: Railroad buffs find slice of heaven at Park Forest rail park
BY Jerry Shnay Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org July 25, 2013 2:46PM
This platform at the Park Forest Rail Fan Park allows a perfect view of a rare railroad “cloverleaf” system in operation. | Supplied photo
Updated: August 29, 2013 7:28PM
The “foamers” are coming! The “foamers” are coming!
As yet, there’s no need to alert the authorities about an expected invasion of a worshipful band of all things railroad, but rest assured that the “foamers” have circled Park Forest on their maps and will soon arrive.
At first glance, these people seem to be as normal as we are (well, as some of us are), but they are ardent in their love of trains. And with the opening of the Rail Fan Park on North Street, they are about to descend on us, cameras and notepads in hand.
Railroad men once named these devotees “foamers,” suggesting they foamed at the mouth when the word “trains” was mentioned. As time passed, what was once a derisive term became accepted as a badge of honor.
They communicate with one another in strange coded messages such as “NSC52,” “Dash 9” and “1953 EA.” They will rave about “heritage units,” and many are ecstatic to hear railroad crossing bells and engine horns.
We do not exaggerate such zeal and passion. There is a national Internet radio program devoted to all things rail. While some of us may post our vacation photos, “foamers” post long videos on the Internet of trains rumbling past a camera. One devoted train buff posted a 16-minute video of trains passing each other on the site of the Rail Fan Park.
The park, which is actually in Matteson but is operated by Park Forest, sports a 60-year-old red caboose at its base. The car is next to a 500-foot ramp leading to a 20-by-40-foot viewing platform, where railroad buffs can see trains moving on what can only be described as a highway cloverleaf for trains.
There are numerous displays in the viewing area explaining the basics of modern railroading. As an inducement for all visitors to the park, free parking will be available through August at the adjacent commuter lot at the Matteson Metra station.
The Rail Fan Park was developed under a $7 million agreement between Park Forest and the Canadian National Railway, which several years ago acquired the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad tracks that essentially encircle the Chicago area. Those tracks run east-west through the Southland to Joliet before swinging north to Waukegan.
CN wanted to build a connection between its new line and the main north-south tracks that carry freight as well as passenger service for both Metra and Amtrak. As part of the deal, CN was able to construct a four-way connection at the site of the Rail Fan Park — allowing trains to move easily between east-west and north-south.
Railroad experts say the only other railroad “cloverleaf” system in operation in the nation is in an out-of-the-way location in California — making the Park Forest Rail Fan Park the only such site accessible to the public. Future plans for the park may include a visitor center/coffee shop in the caboose.
Coincidentally, the Rail Fan Park is just a couple of hundred yards from the 22-mile Old Plank Road Trail, a recreational pathway that stretches from Park Forest to Joliet along the route of an abandoned rail line.
There was once a time when children hungered for model train sets, and a real train was one of the fastest and nicest ways to get from here to there.
Two generations ago, riding on the Twentieth Century or the Super Chief or the Empire Builder were common terms of transportation across the country. Today’s traveler has more options and seemingly less interest in seeing the USA from a train window.
For you and I, a freight train may be mainly a nuisance, preventing us from getting where we’re going as quickly as we’d like as it rumbles through a crossing. But to a “foamer,” the sight of five stacked engines schlepping 120 freight cars is a marvelous sight.
Who are we to judge?