By Meg O’Neil
Idling just alongside America’s Cup Avenue on a recent Sunday morning sits a behemoth 1945 electric diesel train engine. It's gearing up to pull a 1904 passenger coach and 1884 office car filled with families and visitors for a 10-mile journey that will bring them up the western edge of Aquidneck Island.
When these train enthusiasts board the passenger cars of the Old Colony and Newport Railway, it’s not about getting from point A to point B; it’s about learning the history of the rails on the island, about the experience of riding in a turn-of-the-century passenger car, and about taking in rarely seen, sweeping views of Narragansett Bay found along the line.
The OCNR has been a staple in downtown for over 30 years; ever since a small group of local railroad enthusiasts decided to form the National Railroad Foundation and Museum in 1978, thus saving the once bustling tracks from complete extinction.
Now, they're working to pass along their appreciation for the railway to a new generation.
Jack Doyle has been on board with the OCNR since the beginning. Known as the Road Foreman of Engines, Doyle has welcomed an innumerable number of train enthusiasts to the Newport railway over the years.
But who are these elusive characters?
According to Doyle, the train enthusiast is a rare breed, often starting with a fascination of trains at an early age.
And it’s that fascination -- what Doyle calls a “sacred obligation” to keep that passion alive, which draws people to the OCNR.
Coming from all walks of life, volunteers range from adults who have worked with railroads in the past, to what Doyle describes as an incredibly dedicated group of young people, some of whom have moved on to careers in the industry.
And for an organization as small as the OCNR, it's those volunteers who might just hold the future for the island's rail line.
According to Doyle, to start, young men (there have been no young lady volunteers, though they are welcome) who come on board as volunteers with the Old Colony are given the essential, but not skilled jobs, to start. From cleaning the windows, carrying coal, helping clear brush from the tracks, the youngsters learn the entry level aspects of railroading.
“We give them the basic training,” he says.
From there, as the boys reach their late teens, they’re given the opportunity to start training and learning the ins-and-outs of being a conductor and engineer.
“We’re a small organization,” says Doyle, “But this gives a young person a level of confidence that they really couldn’t get anywhere else.”
In fact, for some, the Old Colony has become invaluable on-the-job training.
For a recent example, Doyle points to a young man named Matthew Moore.
Last November, Moore left the Old Colony to train in Atlanta as a freight conductor for CSX, the Class I railroad operator that owns approximately 21,000-route miles servicing most of the East Coast.
According to Doyle, Moore first came to the Old Colony when he was just eight years old with his mom. “He always loved the railroad,” Doyle said. “As a result, he came up the line. He’s a very responsible and capable young man. He became an engineer with us and thanks to that, he was selected for conductor programs with CSX.”
As Doyle explains, Moore is just one of many Old Colony volunteers who have gone on to successful careers in the industry.
“It’s a bigger operation than one can imagine,” he said. “Railroading is probably one of the most significant proponents of the economy, but a lot of people don’t see it because the tracks are isolated, unlike in the old days when they went through the heart of a town.”
Because of the mammoth size of the industry, Doyle explained that it's one of the last industries to remain heavily unionized. As a result, the jobs are high-skill, high-paying jobs. “For young people interested, it’s as much as a passion as it is a job,” he said.
They're also in high demand.
Doyle’s son Patrick also went through the steps at Old Colony. “He was attached to my hip from the beginning," he recalled.
Since the early days over 30 years ago, Patrick went on to work for a small freight railroad on Cape Cod and now works as a commuter engineer in Boston.
“It’s more about the experience,” says Doyle. “They get it on their resume and it’s a leg up when they enter the field. It’s very competitive, so this helps them to have that little bit of solid experience … We help them get their foot in the door.”
Doyle rattled off over half a dozen more names of young men from Newport and surrounding towns who have gone on to have successful railroad careers around the country all with one common bond: their younger years, where they made their start at the Old Colony and Newport Railway.
Always happy to share in the company of fellow enthusiasts, Doyle emphasized that the OCNR is always on the lookout for new volunteers. While no experience is necessary, carrying a bit of a torch for the rails is highly encouraged.