A Vindication of All Those Hours I Spent Playing With Trains as a Kid

Like most normal children, I spent a good bit of time in my toddler years putting together wooden toy train tracks and hauling “freight” through imaginary countrysides. When I got a little older, I loved riding on trains at theme parks, and when the holidays rolled around I would build with more complex Lionel train sets.

Today I saw a train stationed out by Atlantic Station here in Atlanta, and I instantly reverted to that childhood curiosity.


I’ve heard these trains passing by my apartment complex every night for the past two years. Today I decided to walk down to the tracks and check out this parked engine. I even talked to the engineer.

“Whatcha hauling?”
“Oh, I don’t know – a bunch of junk”
“I’m sure that junk matters to somebody.”

In retrospect, he might not have been enjoying running this train as much as I was enjoying exploring it.

So what prompted my sudden interest in stopping by to look at the string of cars and rail?

Trains, Motive Power, and Philosophy

I recently finished a return read-through of Atlas Shrugged, Russian-American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand’s story of the strike of the “men of the mind” – inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and philosophers who become the target of a whole world’s self-destructive code of values. The story’s main motif? Railroads and motive power.

Our protagonist is Dagny Taggart, Operating Vice President of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest supplier of freight and passenger rail in the country and the main pipeline for goods crossing a continent. Throughout the story, Dagny has to fight a battle to keep her railroad alive.

In the world of Atlas, more and more of the “men of the mind” – entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers, artists, philosophers – who create value for the world (and freight for Taggart Transcontinental) are disappearing mysteriously. More and more businessmen, bureaucrats, and public intellectuals are collaborating to throttle competition, freeze innovation, and seize control of the few people driving what’s left of the trade left in the world.

Rand illustrates the importance of the “motive power” of the human mind through the story of the crumbling motive (literally, engine) power of Taggart Transcontinental. We see the fragility of civilized life through her illustrations of the division of labor which productive work supports. And in some powerful passages, we see how that division of labor collapses when a society trades productive work for political favors and force:

“The supply of coal to Taggart Transcontinental was four days late…

Mr. Quinn, of the Quinn Ball Bearing Company… waited a week for the freight train that carried his order to Rearden Steel. When the train arrived, the doors of the Quinn Ball Bearing Company’s plant were closed.

Nobody traced the closing of a motor company in Michigan, that had waited for a shipment of ball bearings, its machinery idle, its workers on full pay; or the closing of a sawmill in Oregon, that had waited for a new motor; or the closing of a lumber yard in Iowa, left without supply; or the bankruptcy of a building contractor in Illinois, who, failing to get his lumber on time, found his contracts cancelled and the purchasers of his homes sent wandering off down snow-swept roads in search of that which did not exist anywhere any longer.”

Reading Atlas always reminds me of how interesting and important railroads are as the actual conduits for bringing us the things we count on (in 2013, railroads in the US moved freight with 2007 dollar values of $2.1 trillion). They’re also powerful metaphorical conduits, or symbols, of the kinds of things that make trade and civilization possible: science, technology, property, freedom, creativity, and responsibility.

So, parents, make sure your kids have all the time in the world to play with their Thomas the Tank Engine sets. More depends on railroads than you might think.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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