“Here we go, some action,” says Bob Gross, shifting forward in his seat. “This is the Lake Shore, running late.”

Gross and other members of the 20th Century Railroad Club keep an eye on Chicago’s train traffic from a private clubhouse–a room on the ninth floor of an office building overlooking the Amtrak yards at Canal and the river. He’s seen the Lake Shore, a New York-to-Chicago run, pull into Union Station dozens of times. Pointing down at the tracks, he dissects the train car by car. “There’s two sleepers from New York,” he says. “There’s the diner, there’s the club car. This last sleeper, it’s out of Boston. They connect at Albany. Now here are the moneymakers, the freight cars. He’s late. He’s probably due in at 11:15. He’s two and a half hours late.”

Gross’s passion is mild compared to the most fanatical of train nuts. “The real rail fans, we call ’em ‘foamers,'” he says. “They’re foaming at the mouth: ‘Look at that train!’ They’ll argue over how many screws are in the side panel.” In Porter, Indiana, Gross says, railroad officials were forced to fence off the yards because foamers were standing on the tracks, photographing oncoming trains.

The 20th Century Railroad Club, which is named after a luxury liner that once ran the rails between New York and Chicago, is a much safer vantage point. Their “skybox” is papered with posters of famous trains and has banks of comfy chairs, including a high-backed seat from an old caboose. The small library holds the book that introduced many of us to trains: The Little Engine That Could.

When Gross was growing up around 87th and Eggleston, the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific freights passed by his house–hoboes sometimes jumped off and stole milk from his family’s porch–and he used to walk down to the Englewood station just to watch the trains collect and discharge their passengers. Gross worked eight years for the Belt Railway, then took a job as a customer service representative with United Airlines. When he goes on vacation, he honors both his old employers by taking a train one way and a plane the other.

Anthony Sarno, another rail fan who’s hanging out by the window, disdains air travel altogether. “You see the country” on a train, he says. “You go to Vegas on the plane, you get there, you don’t see anything in between. You go to Seattle on the train, you see little towns in the wheat fields. Anybody who goes on a plane, you don’t see that.”

Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh used the hobby of watching trains as a metaphor for frittering away one’s life. Trainspotting, his book about aimless drug addicts, and the movie it spawned had nothing do with railroads.

“I think a lot of rail fans saw that and wanted their money back,” says Gross.

This Saturday from 10 to 5 the 20th Century Railroad Club is holding its first open house at the clubhouse, 329 W. 18th, suite 902, which will include a “behind-the-scenes” tour of Union Station. On Sunday it’s sponsoring a Grand Hobo Concert at 3 PM at Pullman United Methodist Church, 112th and Saint Lawrence. Buzz Potter, the “hobo poet laureate,” will read, and a long bill of folksingers, including “Hobo King” Liberty Justice and Luther the Jet, will pluck old railroad songs. A donation is requested. The clubhouse is open to the public Saturdays from May through October; admission is $3. For more information call 312-829-4500 or check out www.20thcentury.org.

–Ted Kleine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.