From: "James Dent" james DOT dent AT itochu DOT com
Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2001 09:56:56 -0400
Subject: Passion for Trains Is a Way to Run a Railroad
"Train1.jpg" - image/jpeg, 17114 bytes, 220x146 (16kb)
From the New York Times comes an article about a railfan and his railroad...
April 30, 2001
Passion for Trains Is a Way to Run a Railroad
By DAN BARRY
Onlookers, including a teenage rail fan near the baggage cart at right,
watched as the last passenger train bound for Hoboken on the Lackawanna line
pulled out of Dansville, N.Y., on a hot July day in 1962.
As president of Genesee Valley Transportation Company, David Monte Verde
controls 27 locomotives.
UTICA, N.Y. — David Monte Verde hears it still. Even now, even here — in a
restaurant near the rail yard, above the din of an all-you-can- eat lasagna
night. It rumbles through his memory the way it thundered through the
Genesee Valley of his childhood, bound for Buffalo, making time. The Phoebe
"When that train came down the hill, the sound of it would just echo across
the valley," he says, staring past the restaurant's gaudy glare. "You could
set your clock to it."
And when she pulled into the Dansville station each afternoon at 5:27 — her
brakes sighing, her gray, yellow and maroon finish gleaming — young David's
universe was in its rightful order. Mom and Dad were alive, supper was
waiting, and the pride of the Lackawanna line would be back again tomorrow,
looking to make time.
It has been about 40 years since the original Phoebe Snow made its last run,
and nearly that long since Mr. Monte Verde watched the last passenger train
fade from the station platform of his small town in western New York. He was
16, old enough to know that crews would soon be tearing up the Lackawanna
rails from the surrounding hills. All he could do was cry.
Trains have defined him ever since. "You get them in your blood," he says.
Today, Mr. Monte Verde is the president of his own railroad, a profession so
uncommon, so linked to another time, that it conjures images of pocket
watches and top hats. Strangers often misunderstand him to mean that he
somehow earns a living by overseeing a fleet of model railroads. No, he has
to explain: I own the real thing.
His is a short-line railroad called the Genesee Valley Transportation
Company, which at last count had 27 locomotives, hundreds of boxcars and
control of nearly 300 miles of track in New York and Pennsylvania. When a
major hauler chugs into the grimy Utica yard with raw copper from Texas, a
G.V.T. engine takes over, pulling the loaded cars down 13 miles of track and
into the red-brick maw of the Revere Copper Products plant in Rome.
Mr. Monte Verde, 55, carries his solid build with the frenetic air of a
commuter waiting for a train running late. He made the not-so-seamless
transition from rail fan to rail businessman by collecting anything that
reminded him of those childhood days: trainmen's keys, passenger- train
china, photographs, cabooses — and then, well, locomotives. "It kind of got
away from me," he says.
He has learned that the business of railroading spares little time for
sentiment; there are customers to woo, government grants to win, connections
to make. It is also a sobering barometer of the fragile upstate New York
economy. When two paper mills shut down in the Adirondacks last winter, Mr.
Monte Verde and his four partners lost nearly a third of their business.
They were forced to lay off more than a dozen trainmen in a process he
likened to "losing part of the family."
The comment reveals the blurred distinctions in Mr. Monte Verde's life,
between work and leisure, rail yard and home, past and present.
He often lapses into the language of an alternate universe: of wide cabs,
Alcos and "moving meets" (the point at which two trains traveling in
opposite directions pass each other). He says, "Being a railroader takes
over your life." One of his most vivid memories as a parent is the time,
nearly 20 years ago, when he changed the diapers of his oldest son, Charlie,
in a Buffalo rail yard.
"It was his first rail fan trip," the proud father says.
In 1980, there were 220 short-line railroads in the United States; today,
there are 550, thanks in part to the lifting of some government regulations
that encouraged larger companies to sell off their little-used and abandoned
branch lines. Those in the railroad industry say the arrangement has
generally worked out well, with the major rail companies teaming up with the
short-line operations to haul goods and material.
Even so, railroading has its familial tensions. Many rail fans blame the
businesses for mismanaging and ultimately killing dozens of passenger and
freight trains that once inched across the nation's belly with proud and
poetic names. (Once there was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; now there
is Amtrak.) But many rail businesses regard the fans as nostalgia-addled
fanatics who expect them to run empty passenger trains at a financial loss,
simply to conjure nice memories and provide the occasional photographic
Mark Hemphill, the editor of Trains magazine, says the discontinuation of
many passenger trains in the 1950's and 60's spurred a mutual distrust that
manifests itself today in odd ways. Conspiracy theories abound. Some rail
companies even delicately ask whether a job applicant is, how shall we put
this, a rail enthusiast, forcing some to become what are called "closet rail
"The feeling has been that the rail fan will run trains for the sake of
running trains, whether or not they make money," Mr. Hemphill says. But he
adds that the idea that an enthusiast cannot be prudent in the business of
railroading is "silly."
There are, after all, the likes of Mr. Monte Verde — his company's logo on
his shirt, a worn trainman's switch key in his pocket. The inside of his
well-traveled Dodge sedan crackles with the short-wave conversations between
dispatchers and train engineers. Whenever he sees an Amtrak train whiz past,
he reaches for the schedule he keeps tucked in the car's sun visor, just to
see how late it is running.
But that cluttered Dodge is a satellite office of his company's headquarters
in Batavia, about 23 miles east of Buffalo. He roams the state and eastern
Pennsylvania, meeting with clients, buttering up politicians, and doing
anything else he can to keep his company profitable.
After graduating from college, Mr. Monte Verde spent two decades in the
business of rail equipment and signal supplies, then worked for a few years
at Kodak in Rochester. All the while, he fed his rail passion, studying
railroad history and taking train photographs by the score.
In 1987, he and four partners bought and restored an Alco engine, made money
by leasing it out, and then donated it to the Rochester chapter of the
National Railway Historical Society. "Then we bought two more," he says.
Today, the partnership that became Genesee Valley Transportation oversees
five active rail lines. They include the Depew, Lancaster & Western
Railroad, featuring a seven-mile run in Batavia that moves loads of
fertilizer and beer; the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad, which hauls grain and
propane 30 miles from Scranton, Pa., to the Poconos; and the Mohawk,
Adirondack & Northern Railroad, here in Utica.
The morning after his lasagna feast, Mr. Monte Verde walks through the
gravel and grime of the Utica rail yard, pausing to examine a 1964 Alco
engine nicknamed Jumbo. A rail fan, he says, marvels at the paint scheme of
the engine, imagines photographing it against a setting gumdrop sun. But an
owner studies the wear and tear on the steel wheels, and wonders whether it
is time for old Jumbo to take a trip to the repair shop.
Soon the 132-ton Jumbo is chugging through the rail yard landscape of
wheat-colored cattails and 20-foot piles of logs, "switching and kicking"
rail cars into position along several tracks. Some contain junk destined for
a steel mill; others carry copper for the Revere plant in Rome.
The engineer, Bob Hoffman, stout and 51, lives outside Rochester but spends
four nights a week in a converted rail car he keeps in the yard. He adjusts
the throttle and peers into his side-view mirror, occasionally pausing to
bite a glazed doughnut and slurp some cold coffee.
His lanky assistant, Jeff Collins, 40, used to work on a rail line that
served a paper mill, not far from his home in Watertown. But that mill
closed, and now he spends weeknights on a cot in Utica. Part of his job is
to hop off the engine every now and then to set the switches and rattle off
the identification letters and numbers of the cars over a two- way radio.
"Fire away there, Jeff," the engineer says, clipboard and pen in hand.
"HWA 12778, HWA 882202."
Mr. Monte Verde rides with them for a while in the battleship-gray engine
cab; with voices raised above Jumbo's heaves and sighs, he and the men talk
trains. About the guy who lost a leg a week earlier in a Syracuse yard.
About that remote station sign, just above Boonville, which simply says
"Hell." About the exact meaning of that milepost in the yard ("It means
we're 235 miles from Grand Central Terminal," Mr. Monte Verde says).
The agile Mr. Collins leaves the cab and pulls the pin that connects Jumbo
to its load. The four rail cars roll away, as if in a dream, onto a
sidetrack, where they will be hitched up and pulled on another day.
"That's a perfect kick," Mr. Monte Verde says, in the language of his
universe. Recently, he experienced a different kind of perfect kick. After
years of scouring rail magazines, memorabilia conventions and the Internet
for anything related to the passenger trains of his Dansville childhood, Mr.
Monte Verde came upon a photograph that had been posted on a rail fan Web
site. A rail buff, riding in the back of the last Hoboken, N.J.-bound
passenger train on the Lackawanna line, snapped the photo as the train
pulled from the Dansville station on a hot July day in 1962.
There, in black and white, is the clapboard building, the platform, the
shingle bearing the name of the town. And there, near the baggage cart, is
16-year-old David Monte Verde, hands on hips and tears to come.