Train Spotting

At Bound Brook’s historic station, railroad fans show up like clockwork.

Engineers can count on a warm greeting from railfans at Bound Brook station, some of whom count cars while others take pictures or record the time of passing.
Photo by Danielle Austen.

A railfan, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “one whose hobby is railroads or model railroads.”

But it is the definition in UrbanDictionary.com—“a person who gets overcome with excitement whenever a train is near”—that perhaps best describes a group of railfans who meet every Sunday morning for several hours, weather permitting, on the south platform of Bound Brook’s historic train station.

The railfans come armed with cameras, binoculars and special scanners tuned to local railroad frequencies. Bill Hannibal of Franklin Township writes down the number of every locomotive that passes by. Others document the names of the railroad companies represented or make videos. Another brings donuts. None knew each other prior to coalescing around the station; now, fast friendships have formed.

“Bound Brook is the best place to watch trains,” says Paul Krueger of Warren. The railfans are such a fixture that locomotive engineers routinely toot their horns in greeting while passing; one honks out “Shave and a Haircut” on a regular basis.

The two major Eastern freight railroads—Norfolk Southern and CSX—generally dominate these tracks (along with New Jersey Transit passenger trains) on a somewhat regular schedule. But the emotional payoff comes when a train speeds by on “foreign power”—which, in railfan speak, usually means that the train is being pulled by an engine rarely seen east of the Mississippi, such as Union Pacific or BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).

“This is one of those legendary spots,” says Canadian Ken Goslett, 61, a retired high school teacher who stopped by after attending a model-train convention in Bridgewater. “Even from Montreal, I’ve heard of Bound Brook.” The easily accessible station, at 350 East Main Street, was built in 1913 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

This group of about a dozen train enthusiasts varies in age and occupation. Hannibal, 74, is a retired appliance-service man; Krueger, 75, a retired environmental-affairs manager. There’s a 35-year-old carpenter and a 56-year-old electrician. South Brunswick resident Alan Fritz, 62, works in R&D for a pharmaceutical company.

“There are probably a lot of folks who look at us and say, ‘You guys need to get a life,’” says Fritz. “But we’re all of the same ilk. We love to come out here and watch the trains on a Sunday and exchange stories about where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and whether we’ve been kicked out of anywhere.”

Mary Ann McGann is a former CNN producer and reporter who harbors a secret yen to ride the rails to California and back.

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