“It’s our job as people who love trains to make sure those details that make railroading so great are not lost”
There’s a certain joy of behind the person in charge of a locomotive, who grasps the throttle and waves to those watching in awe on the ground below. However, this month’s segment comes from a different perspective: The man in the passenger cars of the train, socializing and enjoying the classy amenities that come with vintage passenger railroading. Lou Capwell, an accomplished passenger rail aficionado, has a story to share about his life of documenting the past, and bringing it back to life, in this edition of Behind The Throttle.
I had the opportunity to speak to Lou Capwell last week. Over a few phone calls, I discovered that Lou has worked for more railroads and had more amazing experiences in the industry that many of us railroad lovers could dream of. Lou got his start in railroading in a pretty standard fashion. His uncle, a lifelong train lover, took Lou under his wing and got him hooked on the hobby we all know and love. Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, Lou had a surplus of railroads to photograph. Between the frequently changing landscape of freight railroading, to the steam excursions of the late 1980s, Lou has the opportunity to see lots of different elements of railroading in only his first few years as a train lover. Seeing several of the NRHS steam trips, Lou was enamored not by the steam locomotive crews, but rather the people who were in charge of organizing the events and the ones who made these trips possible.“Those dudes are all having the times of their lives working their trips!” Lou told me that he wanted to work with the passengers and not the trains. He loved the idea of planning these events and riding them with people who appreciated trains like him. Contrary to most young railfans, Lou sought out the job of an event coordinator rather than an engineer. This specific passion of his would guide his journey to greatness that came to be his life.
Lou’s interest in railroading only grew as he got older, and his focus with the hobby also became more distinguished. He found a group of friends that all shared a love for trains and his gang went out to document the history that was happening before their eyes. Growing up in this time before the internet, Lou explained to me that railfanning in his eyes was a duty of train lovers to help document the past and document what trains were like in this time: “It’s our job as people who love trains to make sure those details that make railroading so great are not lost” Lou believes in capturing every detail that railroading had to offer, especially the more intricate gimmicks. Back in his days of railfanning Lou especially gravitated towards the sounds of older locomotives. The sounds of these second generation EMD locomotives, all in run 8 charging up the grades of the Allegheny Mountains, was a detail that Lou felt the need to preserve for the generations that wouldn’t get to experience it later in life. Knowing that these engines would soon befall to the scrapper’s torch, Lou made clear to me that these small details were an important piece of railroad history to preserve.
Lou’s first actual job with a railroad was as a contract photographer for Norfolk Southern. From 2009 to 2011, Lou worked on call to photograph special events and projects happening in the railroad. Lou now had not only a backstage pass to do what he loved: Photographs the changes in the industry and share the modern history that was happening. Plus he was getting paid! As a kid, Lou always dreamed of seeing what was inside the Juniata Shops of Altoona, Pennsylvania. Now, he not only got to see, but he got to document everything he saw: “I always knew there was cool stuff happening in there, and now, I can tell you from my firsthand account, there IS cool stuff in there!” Alongside his photography work with Norfolk Southern, Lou organized several photo charters and events, and continued to make connections in the industry. Eventually Lou began dabbling with passenger railroading and event coverage at different railroads. Lou found a way to monetize his passions of photography and railroading. He began to get paid to do what he loved, and Lou was truly living the dream.
Around 2015, Lou took a new stride in railroading when he began managing passenger cars. At his job at the French Lick Railroad, a fellow board member, David McClure, owned a passenger car that helped introduce Lou to the wonders of the private varnish. Lou informed me of his experiences working with private varnishes and excursion management, both on short lines and mainlines. He worked for several groups over the years, including the Virginia Transportation Museum with the Norfolk and Western 611. Lou’s done everything from working as a manager to serving food and drinks on passenger cars. His favorite job, however, is replicating the men and women who caught his eye back when he was a young boy; making the trips happen, then on the day of, kicking back and enjoying the ride.
Lou’s biggest project to date came about last year with his creation of the Autumn Colors Express. The ACE is a rebranded version of the New River Train, a national treasure of an excursion that has operated for decades in the scenic New River Gorge of West Virginia. Last year, the group operating the train decided to pull the plug following complications with Amtrak and a lack of funding. Seeing this conflict, Lou and two of his long time friends and fellow preservationists, Mike Voiland and Adam Auixer, formed a new company to host the event. Rail Excursion Management Company was founded with the sole goal of saving this historic train, and to operate it for years to come. Railexco also specializes in railcar logistics, private car charters, and event management. Lou believes that it is his duty to preserve these traditions that make passenger railroading so special. His dedication to preserving and sharing history has been made clear with his years of dedication to the traditions of passenger railroading.
Speaking with Lou gave me insight on what the goal of railroad preservation is all about. It’s no secret that railroading is certainly not what it once was, and that passenger rail travel is nowhere near as glamorous as it was in the heyday of railroading. However, by preserving special elements of railroading that make trains so fantastic we as a community can bring light to the wonders of railroading. Lou’s life has been dedicated to the cause of preserving rail history for future generations to enjoy. This duty of keeping traditions alive that Lou has taken up is what makes him a distinguished member of our community and a preservationist of railroad history.
Thank you for reading this edition of Behind the Throttle! Stay tuned for our next addition, featuring Andrea Biesecker, project manager and steam enthusiast at the Strasburg Railroad.