Book Review: ‘Last Train’ Details Fascination with Railroads

 

Railroading was the great romantic adventure of the 19th century. By the 20th, although every boy seemed to go through a phase where railroading was mesmerizing, trains soon lost their place to aircraft, automobiles and spacecraft. Yet some boys kept their enchantment with railroads, and railroads remain a critical artery to our 21st-century economy.

“Last Train to Texas: My Personal Railroad Odyssey,” by Fred W. Frailey, illustrates both. Frailey was obsessed with railroads as a child and maintains that interest to this day.

He turned his obsession into a career, without ever working for a railroad, transforming a journalism career into one focusing on railroading. He documented the modern railroad industry’s impact on the nation over the last half-century in the business press and Trains magazine.

“Last Train to Texas” collects his Trains magazine essays. The result is fascinating. Frailey started writing about railroads in the late 1960s, when the industry, especially passenger service, was in collapse. He followed it through its transformation into a 21st-century industry, one that moves more cargo at greater speeds than it did in the past.

Frailey’s essays capture the problems railroads faced in the 1970s. He highlights the industry’s largely anonymous captains over this period. He shows how Tom Carter restored the Kansas Southern Lines to profitability after years of mismanagement. He describes David Fink’s (the man you never wanted to cross) transformation of two faltering Maine railroads into today’s Pan Am Railroad.

Other essays depict the breadth of today’s railroad industry. One presents the competition between railroads to carry coal out of the Powder River Basin. A second is about the battles between the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and the Union Pacific. Another shows the frustration in keeping passenger cars used for New York commuter traffic running.

He also highlights passenger traffic throughout the world and talks about a miniature, yet profitable Effingham Railroad; transcontinental modal trains in Canada; and every aspect of modern railroading.

“Last Train to Texas” depicts modern railroading, warts and all, though a fascinating amalgam of stories. Readers finish understanding Frailey’s love of railroading because of the breadth of his narratives.

“Last Train to Texas: My Personal Railroad Odyssey,” by Fred W. Frailey, Indiana University Press, 2020, 232 pages, $32.00

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

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