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Even Thomas the Tank Engine would be bored insensate – Railroads Deliver the Goods!

February 1, 2013


The American love affair with railroads has been a l0ng and warm one. They were the first technological innovation to truly shrink the world that we live in, and in that regard were a forerunner of such things as telephones, radio, television and the internet. People and cargo could be moved at UP TO 35 MILES PER HOUR, over terrain rough and tumble, through weather fair and foul. Miraculous. And when the last Golden Spike was driven into the First Transcontinental Railroad (a moment worthy of Big Fancy Painting commemoration), one could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific without worrying about Capes or Horns ever again. It was like people were given Nightcrawler-like teleportation abilities.

It was a really slow BAMF, but still.

Because of this well-grounded affection, it would seem that railroads in the middle of the 20th century would be the last things in need of lobbying or informational propaganda. But the proliferation of automobiles and air travel might have led to some nervous Nellies amongst the executive class, so in stepped the Association of American Railroads with that most wondrous of things: a comic book. Not just any comic book, but an informational brochure masquerading as sequential art. Strap yourself in and get ready for the ride of your life!

Railroads Deliver the Goods was a giveaway originally published in 1954 (or 1956, I’ve seen conflicting information), with newsprint front and back covers instead of the slightly glossy stock you’d normally find sandwiching the contents. It was one of  a series of comics touting the various wonders of rail travel and transport. (Another highlighted the synergy between railroads and the Boy Scouts, of all things.) There were variant covers to the two different editions of this comic. This is the earlier of the two, and shows a diesel engine and a steam engine, while the later edition has two diesel engines. The march of progress even carries over into railroad depictions, it seems.

With art from Bill Bunce, the story follows a father and son duo — Cap and Randy — through the son’s first run on a train. Randy is learning the family business, as it were. Here they are arriving at work — and please note the box of text:


I’m not sure about including Cuba in the web of standard gauge accommodation. Unless my geography is rusty, there’d have to be some cooperation by other means of shipping (emphasis on the ship) to get a train car from Florida to Havana, right? But maybe there’s a chunnel that I’m unaware of. Anyway.

The comic is filled with the broad mechanics and logistics of a modern railroad network, everything from how they run to how switches are switched and messages relayed. Did you know that notes were passed to moving trains by lasso-like hoops? I didn’t:


What’s the over/under on how many guys were accidentally yanked off the train using that method?

Randy soaks it all up like a sponge, even the dullest, most mind-numbing information, and Cap is all-too willing to drone on. Even about a train’s “Inductive Carrier System.” To wit:




There’s also some toeing of the company line/political chest-puffing to be had:


I’m thinking Cap wrapped himself in the American flag when he delivered that spiel. (I’m only familiar with the modern state of train travel, where certain passenger lines would have been extinct years ago without government subsidies. Freight trains are less dependent on the public purse, but still rely on it. So no comment on whether Cap was completely blowing smoke up his son’s keister.) (Also: UP YOURS, TRUCKS.)



Get the hell off the tracks, rabbit! Go tell Thumper and all the other woodland critters that the tank-train is coming through! U S A! U S A!

When they reach the end of the line and unload their cargo, you expect Randy to make a run for it, fleeing towards a better, non-coma-inducing life. Nope. He’s still taken with the whole thing, and is spouting platitudes like one thoroughly brainwashed (complete with vacant stare!):


After reading this, you’d expect to walk into a church and see a steam engine in stained glass. And the Wabash Cannonball was assumed into heaven… It is what it is. Trade associations aren’t in the business of publishing minority reports on what’s wrong with the industries on whose behalf they advocate, and the unalloyed positivity here (RAILROADS ARE AWESOME, GIVE YOURSELF TO THEM FREELY) is part and parcel of that. Things could have been a bit less expositorily dry, though. We’re not asking for a yearning, wistful tale of homey steam replaced by new-fangled diesel, but maybe a smidgen of drama would enliven the proceedings. Something. Anything.

Put it this way: Being stuck in the seat next to Cap on a long Acela ride from DC to Boston would be like sitting next to Ted Striker in Airplane!, and fans of Airplane! know what I’m talking about.

Yet, even taking all that into account, credit has to be given to Bunce for his depictions of the locomotives throughout, which tickle the toes of the model train fetishist that lies latent within us all. And the love affair continues…

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