“How Fast Are We Going?”

People are surprised when they learn that I do most of my travel on the mainland by Amtrak, and I’m often asked what I do to keep from being bored on the long-distance trains. I’m never bored, of course. There’s time to read, to do some writing on my lap top, or listen to music on my smart phone. (“My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys” by Willie Nelson works well while crossing West Texas on the Sunset Limited.)
But my favorite distraction is and will always be conversation with other passengers over meals in the diner or in the lounge car. I particularly enjoy chatting with youngsters, many of whom are on their very first train ride. The kids, usually the boys, often ask how fast we’re going and it’s fun showing them how they can figure that out for themselves.
 First, I tell them about the mileposts—how they can spot them and why they’re important. I have them watch carefully out the window and sing out when we pass two of them. Next, with the stopwatch feature on my wristwatch, we determine how long it took the train to travel between those two mileposts.
Then I give the kids the formula and let them do the math: divide 3,600 (the number of seconds in an hour) by the number of seconds it took us to travel one mile (the distance between the two mileposts). The answer is the train’s speed. If it takes us 53 seconds to travel one mile, we’re going 68 miles an hour.
The kids are delighted, especially when I tell them that the engineer in the locomotive cab carries a stopwatch for the same purpose. He’s required to operate right at the speed limit and checks the accuracy of the speedometer in the cab using this same method.
Old timers know there’s another way to compute the train’s speed, although it’s a lot less accurate. Along many stretches of track there are wooden utility poles, originally installed by the railroad to bring electricity to its signals and switches. If you count the number of those poles passing by in a 15 second period and multiply that number by six, you’ll have a rough idea of the train’s speed.
I must confess that I often do the milepost-stopwatch bit all by myself in my roomette. My wife says it’s a “guy thing”. Maybe so . . . but I make no apologies.