Next Stop, Cannon Building

Bachus’ Childhood Love of Trains Is Still Gaining Steam

Posted March 15, 2005 at 3:27pm

As a child in the 1950s, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) dreamed of growing up to be a railroad engineer just like his grandfather, who worked for the old Southern Railway System.

Instead, Bachus went to law school and later entered elective politics, but he never lost his fascination for all things locomotive.

Bachus bought his first model train, a Southern, on a “sentimental” whim in the early 1980s when he was still in private law practice. It was identical to one his father had given him as a child, but that train had been “handed down”

to other family members and “beat up” to the point that there were only two remaining pieces.

After that initial acquisition, Bachus was hooked.

“I thought they were pretty, so when I moved up here I added more,” he says.

Indeed, he’s transformed his fourth-floor Cannon Building office into a virtual shrine to the American railroad.

In addition to roughly a dozen model trains, Bachus’ office walls are populated by railroad maps and vintage Time, Life and Saturday Evening Post airline and train advertisements, including one ad for American Airlines featuring a then relatively unknown actress by the name of Donna Reed.

He primarily exhibits “passenger trains that came through Birmingham, Ala.,” including the Southern, the Seaboard Coastline and the Illinois Central railroads.

The exceptions to this rule, he says, are a 1930s Norfolk and Western Railroad engine and a modern Amtrak passenger train — both gifts from his wife.

“She gave me the Norfolk Western, and I said, ‘Oh that’s really great. I like it.’ I said, ‘What I’m collecting is trains that came through Alabama.’ And she said, ‘Well, did that come through Alabama?’ And I said, ‘No, but it’s a really beautiful engine.’ And then she gave me the Amtrak.”

In the interest of domestic tranquility, he’s decided to let it go. “That’s almost like a third rail,” he deadpans.

Nevertheless, in the future, Bachus would like to branch out beyond only those railroads that cut through the Heart of Dixie. And he’s currently in the market for a Santa Fe, “the most popular train that you can buy,” in addition to locomotives from the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads.

“I’ve just been looking for a bargain,” says Bachus, adding that he’s had to limit his collecting “until I get the kids out of college.”

Still, Bachus always has an eye out for new artifacts to add to his cache — even when he’s traveling down the backroads of Virginia.

“I was going down the road probably 55 miles per hour and just about the time I got by this yard sale I looked over and I saw old trains and that one was about $3,” Bachus says as he gestures toward a black 1953 Lionel engine, valued at about $60. “I didn’t really know then what it was worth so I gave the guy $5.”

That wasn’t the only time Bachus snagged a bargain. He scored a quartet of old Alabama railroad maps, some showing the state when it was still a territory, for between $45 and $50 back in the 1970s. Today they would sell for between $2,000 and $3,000 apiece, he notes proudly.

“I bought them as a hobby, [but] with those two maps I could probably pay for everything I’ve bought” so far, he laughs.

Bachus also possesses an uncanny ability to conjure up the names of both past and present railroads that have run through the various hometowns of visitors to his office.

“This guy said, ‘Indianapolis used to have six different rail companies.’ I said, ‘Let me see if I can name them.’ I named 15,” Bachus recalls of one encounter. (Today, he says, the “40 to 50 railroads” that once linked the nation have “have all merged now into about six major railroads.”)

Naturally, Bachus, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, is a vocal proponent of the U.S. rail industry.

“We subsidize our highways, we subsidize our airlines … and we don’t do our railroads. They are totally on their own so they are at a competitive disadvantage,” he says.

That didn’t stop him from suing the railroads at times during his tenure as an Alabama attorney, however.

One train-related item you won’t find prominently displayed is a framed certificate of a judgment for $1,000,000 against Seaboard Coastline that Bachus won for a “family that’s husband had been killed at a grade crossing.”

Instead, it’s hidden in his office closet behind numerous other surplus wall hangings.

“My staff, since I’m Republican, they put it there,” Bachus quips, referencing his trial-lawyer credentials.

Because of his in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of railroads, as well as their operating and safety routes, Bachus says he could deduce “what had gone wrong” in various rail accidents.

He was so good, in fact, that CSX eventually put him on its payroll.

Bachus has crisscrossed the United States via train — his favorite trip was on the old Burlington Northern Railroad from Chicago to Seattle. “I could close my eyes and imagine that it was the 1880s. The plains, the endless expanse was incredible.” He has also covered much of Europe and parts of Asia by rail.

“[Reps.] Ken Calvert [R-Calif.] and Henry Bonilla [D-Texas] and I all went to China and I talked them all into riding a train from Hangzhou to Shanghai,” Bachus recalls. “They were all complaining about having to ride the train. … Then they went on the train and they said ‘Wow, we can see so much.’”

As for Bachus’ railroad dream, that may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean his childhood aspiration has totally fallen by the wayside.

If anything, it’s expanded.

“Now that I’m a little older, I’d actually like to run the whole railroad,” he laughs.

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