For someone whose application to work for the railroad was twice rejected, Gary Forbes knows a staggering amount about trains. He can recite the horsepower, fuel capacity, and maximum speed of a locomotive, and he can tell you that the freights that rumble past the San Fernando Valley tract home he shares with his collie, Lassie, feature 80 cars on average, because he has counted them. Forbes, who is 54 but guileless and easily amused, like a big kid, is a Rain Man of sorts. Sitting in his living room, framed by shelves of railroad videos, he recalls a train he saw in Northridge hauling sugar beets. "There were four units," he says. "The engine numbers were 8308, 8567, 6671, and SSW9378. There were 87 cars total. It was heading west at 3:35 in the afternoon."
On Monday? Tuesday?
"I saw that particular train," he says, "on July 3, 1990."
Forbes is what's known in railroad circles as a foamer—a fan so ardent in his love for locomotion that he all but froths at the mouth. The term, coined by Amtrak workers, carries a whiff of disdain. Forbes discovered his life's passion while traveling by rail with his family from L.A. to Vegas at the age of 6. "That's when I got the bug hard," he says. "I was in awe of the power, the weight, the whole shootin' thing." As a teen, he spent hours at the tracks near his house, throwing himself headlong into a pastime that baffled his parents. One of his haunts was a railway station in L.A.'s Chatsworth district. Last September, just north of the station, a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The Metrolink engineer blew through a red signal, a mistake that cost him his life and those of 24 passengers.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that 22 seconds before impact the engineer had sent a text message to a 15-year-old boy who frequented Chatsworth station, cozying up to the rail crews. The boy's name is Nick Williams, and a day after the crash he visited the scene with friends to honor the fallen engineer, Robert Sanchez, and agreed to appear on KCBS-TV, where he displayed the text message he had received. The initial reaction from the public was one of disbelief. But after teen foamers posted a glowing tribute to Sanchez on YouTube, anger prevailed. In the hours after the crash, Gary Forbes heard the rescue trucks roar past his house, but he didn't give much thought to the carnage in Chatsworth. It involved a passenger train, he says, and he is a fan of freights.
The United States has many foamer meccas—places like the Folkston Funnel in Georgia, where two rail lines meet before proceeding south into Florida, and Rochelle, Illinois, crossroads of the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads, which offers a "hobo fire pit" for grilling and more than 100 train sightings a day. Because of its sunshine and scenery, Southern California is something of a foamer heaven. Tehachapi Loop and Cajon Pass—two stops atop the list of railfan favorites—are an easy drive from L.A., and just down freeway 5 you'll find Fullerton, called "Foamerton" by the local engineers. On the Saturday before Christmas, 20 or so buffs from the Fullerton Foamers and Foto Society are gathered on a station platform for a holiday party. A guy dressed in denim shorts hunches over a camera on a tripod. Another sits with a laptop, using a program called ATCS (Advanced Train Control Systems), which allows him to reproduce the grid used by dispatchers, pinpointing a train's location. Foamers often use scanners, as well, to monitor dispatchers' exchanges with engineers. On this night, Metrolink's Christmas train, a passenger line tricked out with holiday decorations, is scheduled to make a station stop, and hundreds of parents and kids have come to greet it.
"It's parked just south of here," the guy with the laptop announces.
From The Little Engine That Could to The Polar Express, trains have always had a mythic hold on boys' imaginations. Why some people get hooked for life is a mystery, but Jon Berson, author of the 1997 suspense novel Foamers, has a theory. "Just like there's an oral stage, there's a train stage," he says. Railfans simply get fixated during the latter. Some memorize commuter schedules; others photograph cabooses. Like idiots savants, they exhibit an almost encyclopedic knowledge of operating procedures. Their thirst for ephemera, combined with a zeal for eyeballing trains up close, has made for uneasy relations with the people who run the lines, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the 2004 bombings of commuter stations in Madrid. One railfan in Texas spotted taking notes beside the tracks in 2002 was pulled from his truck and grilled by police and FBI agents for five hours.
Three years ago, officials at BNSF deputized foamers to help the railroad spot suspicious activity. But engineers still fear them, citing instances in which zealots have stood on the tracks or climbed signal boxes to take pictures. To the engineers, the Chatsworth crash was a grim reminder of the potential for peril along the rails. The train Sanchez was driving knifed through an iron switch at 42 mph, flattening it like "a banana," according to the NTSB. The force of the collision drove the Metrolink engine back into the first passenger car, slicing bodies in half and encasing them in ribbons of steel. Rescue workers had to be rotated in shifts to minimize the toll of the horrors they witnessed.
In Glendale, California, in 2005, 11 Metrolink passengers died when their train collided with a gasoline-soaked Jeep Cherokee left on the tracks in a botched suicide attempt. The news from Chatsworth was even more chilling. "If anything good is to come out of this awful week," read one post on a website frequented by engineers, "I hope it's the complete eradication of foamers from railroad property." "Fucken [sic] train buffs and there [sic] stupid obsession," read another on YouTube. When a story surfaced six weeks later about a 17-year-old foamer who'd posted images from his joyride in the cab of a Chicago commuter line on MySpace, the animosity reached full boil.
So it's surprising to see how much latitude the track officials grant the railfans in Fullerton. "I think they feel it's better that we're in one place than spread out on the line where they can't see us," says Brett Canedy, a man in a green Hollister sweatshirt and a 30 Rock ball cap. At 29, he's something of a rookie among Fullerton's middle-aged foamers, but his social confidence and knowledge of rail operations lend him a certain king-of-the-nerds authority. "Watching trains makes you feel connected to the world," he muses as a freight carrying shipping containers from China rumbles by, rattling the leaves on the palms. Canedy works for the department of public works in Mission Viejo. He's been a Fullerton regular for five years. The moment you begin to wonder why such a good-looking, intelligent man would spend his Saturday nights watching trains, he says, "Some people go to bars. We hang out at the train station. It's a real community."
Nick Williams and his friends were Fullerton regulars too, but the Fullerton stalwarts are quick to dismiss them. "They do a lot of cheesy video, toss it on YouTube, and pat themselves on the back," says Scott Zechiel, a 45-year-old software engineer who bought a nearby house in part because it afforded him a view of the tracks. Beyond the unwanted attention, it seems, Williams' famous text message also brought foamers unwelcome thoughts. "It was like, 'Don't mention that,'" Zechiel says. "It was strange knowing something really nasty had happened, but you didn't want to know about it."
In the face of painful scrutiny, Williams closed his Doglover1000 account on YouTube, and he and his pals have since avoided the media. They each ignored requests for interviews—all but Evan Morrison, who'd appeared with Williams on KCBS and wrote, via e-mail, "I have had my chance with the media, and it's not something I liked very much."
Every detail of Sanchez's life has been publicly dissected—his homosexuality, his lover's suicide, his arrest for shoplifting—but his young pen pal remains a mystery figure. In a 2007 post on a site for California railfans, someone named Nick Williams boasted that he had once talked his way into the cab of an Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. But considering how active Williams was online, it's oddly difficult to trace his footprints. KCBS's website features a vast video archive, but the interview with the boy is nowhere to be found. In the sole snippet of him on YouTube, he's standing next to Morrison, his back to the camera, waving to the engineer of a passing train.
How does a 15-year-old boy deal with his role in such a deadly crash? The answer is unclear. But one thing is certain: Williams hasn't stopped railfanning. Six days after receiving that final text message from Sanchez, he created a new YouTube account, adopting the name Amtrak458. His bio reads, "I'm just your average 15-year-old kid interested in trains. I railfan with my crew of Brian (amtk122) Grant (ggspin12) Chris (Amtrak798) Mark (MarkConductor775) and Evan (EWM27). I can railfan anywhere. . . . If you have any special requests, just ask." He has posted videos of trains in Fullerton, Ventura City, San Bernadino, and San Diego. But unlike so many of his MySpace peers, he shows no desire to step into the spotlight; the videos show no humans, no voices—only machines.
Foamers seem to have an insatiable desire to engage with trains, a childlike affinity that never loses its magic. As the Metrolink Christmas train approaches the depot in Fullerton and slows to a halt, Brett Canedy and his pals swarm the cars, every bit as jubilant as the kids in their midst. A southbound freight speeds past on a nearby track, bringing a gust of wind that ruffles the inflatable decorations. It's an insignificant event, invisible to nearly everyone but the foamers, who anticipated the train's arrival and thrilled at the inside joke of watching it wreak havoc on the tinsel and the lights. They can barely restrain their giggles.
Given what happened in Chatsworth, it might be difficult for Nick Williams to hold fast to his own innocence. Perhaps that's why he jettisoned Doglover1000 for Amtrak458—an identity unburdened with the weight of the Metrolink crash. Still, one wonders how long it will be before the pull of girls and cars and college draws him away from his model railroad. Who can say? The Fullerton crew, who stare now, wide-eyed, as the holiday train slowly moves north, haven't let growing up get in the way of their fun.