by Nathan McConnell
I have loved trains my entire life and some of my favorite memories include times I have spent visiting and riding trains. I have visited many scenic railroads in the states around my home, including Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend a few one-day train camps and these have been some of my favorite activities. While those have been great experiences, RailCamp East this summer has been the greatest train experience of my life.
A few years ago, while looking for new rail experiences for me, my mom found the NRHS RailCamp website online. I was instantly intrigued by the prospect of being able to attend a week-long rail-centered camp… and then COVID happened. Unfortunately, COVID then canceled RailCamp for the next three years. I was very excited when I learned that RailCamp would finally be returning for 2023.
RailCamp was the first time I had ever gone away to an overnight camp and while I was nervous, the feeling was outweighed by my excitement to have this opportunity. I am fortunate to live close enough that we could drive to the location of RailCamp East at the University of Delaware. It was about a two-hour drive, and we arrived early Sunday afternoon at the dorms. After all the campers arrived and got settled in our rooms, we had a talk about safety and the staff’s expectations. Then we had our first meal in the dining hall- the food was great, and I especially liked the self-serve ice cream. After dinner, we then returned to our meeting room and listened to several presentations and discussions. We ended the night with a briefing on Monday’s events and some free time until we had to go to bed.
We started Monday early with breakfast at the dining hall and then hopped in the vans to drive to the Amtrak Training Center
in Wilmington, DE. There we started with a safety briefing and then had several discussions and presentations about how Amtrak
operates and the different responsibilities of the employees. We were given lunch in the cafeteria and allowed to go outside where
I had a great view while I ate. After we finished lunch, we were taught about the trains that were parked outside the Training Center. I learned how the trains are connected and controlled as well as how they operate internally. Then we went back inside and were able to use simulators of the Amtrak dispatch system, which allowed us to see firsthand how dispatch operators manage, guide, and track trains on the Amtrak system. We were also allowed to use the same locomotive simulators that the Amtrak engineers use during their training. We ended the day by going back to the university, having dinner, and going to bed.
Tuesday was definitely one of the busiest but most exciting days of the entire camp. We left very early in the morning and headed to the Amtrak station in Wilmington where we hopped on a two-hour train ride to New York City. This was my first time in New York City and I was impressed by the sights. My group started with the tour of the Penn Station Central Control room. I got to see the real-life usage of the dispatch systems we were shown the day before.
After visiting the control room, we took a tour of the Moynihan Hall and had lunch there as well. We then toured the rest of Penn Station and heard a presentation from the Amtrak Police about what they do and how they work to keep the passengers safe. We then boarded an Amtrak to ride back to Wilmington to have dinner and go to bed.
Wednesday we spent at Strasburg in Lancaster, PA. I have been to Strasburg several times to ride the train and visit the railroad museum, but I had never seen it from a behind the scenes perspective. In the museum each of the groups started working on our presentation projects that we were going to give at the end of the week. My group’s project was on the John Bull replica
locomotive in the museum. We also took a guided tour of the museum and were taught about the various locomotives and their history. We then took a tour of the restoration shop and yard where the crews restore old and dilapidated locomotives to how they looked back in their prime. We then looked at the archives and learned how the archival system works. Afterwards, we headed back to the university to have dinner and go to bed.
On Thursday we returned to Strasburg to spend the day in the railyard. My group started the day with learning how to drive one of the locomotives a short distance up and down the yard. We then operated a smaller, but just as cool, 15” gauge live steam locomotive. We were also taught engineering hand signals and how to couple a locomotive to a railcar. We toured the shop in the yard and there I met Boilo the shop cat. He was a stray cat they found in the yard one day and he has been there ever since. Boilo was pretty calm when we walked up, but once we all started taking pictures he got shy and ran away. We finished the day by having dinner at Casey’s Caboose Restaurant. I had seen it while going by on the Strasburg train ride and had always wanted to go, but never had the chance.
Friday was the last full day of our camp activities. We headed back to Strasburg one final time where we had breakfast at Casey’s Caboose Restaurant and headed into the Railroad Museum to finalize and give our group presentations. After all the groups gave their presentations, we headed back over to the yard to take a ride on the Strasburg passenger train. We finished the day by having dinner again at Casey’s one last time and heading back to the university to go to sleep.
RailCamp concluded on Saturday with happy but exhausted campers heading back home after a long but unforgettable week. I would not have been able to participate had it not been for the great NRHS D.C. Chapter board and members awarding me a scholarship and allowing me to have this amazing experience. This has given me a clearer plan for my life, especially with my interest in entering the rail industry and turning it into a life-long career. I am very appreciative of this opportunity and will never forget my time at RailCamp.