"I hear the train a’coming, it’s rolling round the bend…"
If you’re like us, the first thing that pops into your head when you’re nearing a rail crossing and hear the ding-ding-ding of a warning signal is, "Great... a train."
It’s the same with Evan McRae; only in his case it’s more like, "Great! A train!"
Evan is the person behind Manitoba Rail Productions, a YouTube channel with a decidedly single train of thought. On a near-weekly basis the 13-year-old H.S. Paul School student posts videos of passing trains he records when he’s out and about with his parents and they find themselves on the wrong side of a gate arm, or — as is the case today — when he rides his bike to a predetermined location, confident a train is going to be by at any second.
"There have been days when I’ve been out for five hours and came up empty, but that’s never been the case here — we should see something fairly soon," he says, standing in a grassy field opposite a section of the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway, immediately north of Symington Yard.
His spidey sense is correct; moments after he affixes a GoPro HERO7 Black action camera to a tripod, devices he purchased with money he earned from a summer job stocking shelves at a cottage-country grocery mart, he flashes a thumbs-up, nodding toward a line of railcars rapidly approaching from the south.
"This might sound weird, but I can usually smell a train coming from a few hundred metres away," he says, sporting a black Canadian Pacific T-shirt and matching ball cap.
"My parents were always saying how I should get off my computer and get outside more and since I love trains so much, this seemed like the perfect solution." –Evan McRae
"Most of my friends think what I’m doing is cool, though there are a few who kid around, calling me nuts. But my parents were always saying how I should get off my computer and get outside more and since I love trains so much, this seemed like the perfect solution."
Evan is what’s commonly referred to as a trainspotter, a term that dates back more than 80 years. In the early 1940s, loco-spotters, as they called themselves back then, began chronicling what they were witnessing in a bird-watchers-type tome penned by Englishman Ian Allen that listed names, numbers and classes of various locomotives that regularly criss-crossed Great Britain.
How popular was the hobby at the time? Within days of its release, the entire first run of Allen’s ABC of Southern Locomotives — 2,000 copies —was completely sold out.
In a recent article published in Rail magazine, it was estimated there are presently in the neighbourhood of 250,000 trainspotters worldwide, a number that diminishes every year, given the vast majority, Evan being an exception, are 60 years of age and up.
"It’s not portrayed as hip and trendy, the stigma is daft," a spotter in their early 20s was quoted as saying. "Now, you go into a school and you won’t find one boy who is willing to admit they are rail enthusiasts." (As to the "one boy" comment; the article goes on to state, "women are either uninterested in train-spotting or not encouraged to take it up... mothers don’t seem to encourage it in their daughters.")
Like a lot of kids, Evan traces his introduction to trains to Thomas the Tank Engine, "star" of the long-running children’s series Thomas and Friends. By the time he was six, he was looking forward to trips to Tinkertown with his parents and older brother; not so much to board the amusement park’s signature ride, a 70-year-old G-16 Streamliner miniature train that circles the property every 30 minutes or so, but rather to keep his eyes open for the real deal.
"If you’re familiar with Tinkertown you know there’s a track that runs between it and the highway," he says. "I used to love being on the little train when a big one went by, tooting its horn at all us riders."
In December 2019, at which point he was regularly studying YouTube videos posted by local rail buffs such as Winnipeg Railfan and Central Canada Railfan, the reason he knows an engine presently passing directly in front of us is a — easy for him to say — GE ET44AC, Evan persuaded his father to escort him to a section of Warman Road, east of Lagimodiere Boulevard. He’d often seen trains rolling by there on his way to hockey practice and was hoping to try his luck at filming a train or two, too.
No sooner had his dad parked the car than he reached over for his iPhone 5 to capture a train quickly setting upon them.
"The conductor waved at me, which was pretty neat, and when I got home a couple hours later I thought, ‘OK, it’s finally my turn to put something on YouTube.’"
"I guess the biggest thing is the thrill of the hunt." –Evan McRae
Within hours, people from as far away as Europe and Australia were tagging his post, leaving comments along the lines of "Great shots," and "Cool video." But it was a message from Steve Boyko, a Winnipeg photographer who goes by Train Geek, that floored him.
"I’d been following Steve for a while and to have one of my inspirations write ‘Nice catch...’ completely blew me away," he says, equating Boyko’s praise with what he presumes it would be like to hear Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler tell him, "Nice goal."
OK, so what is it about trains that fascinates him so much? We mean, by now don’t they all kind of look the same?
That’s the million-dollar question, he replies as he settles into a camping chair he brought with him, an indication we might be here for a while.
Maybe it’s the sense of wonder: where is such-and-such a train coming from or where is it headed? Perhaps it’s the mystery of what lies inside the boxcars, or the joy he gets from picking up on an Illinois Central or Union Pacific logo, models "you just don’t see everyday."
"I guess the biggest thing is the thrill of the hunt," he continues, mentioning his mom and dad have obligingly driven him as far west as Portage la Prairie and as far south as Emerson to watch for trains in all manner of weather.
"I have an app on my phone that lets me know where trains are in the city at any time (hey, can we borrow that the next time we’re heading home at rush hour?) but that doesn’t mean I know what type of train it is.
"So yeah, every time one goes by I’m looking for something out of the ordinary, like a mid-locomotive called a DPU, a distributed power unit, or even some super-cool graffiti painted on the side of a car. That always makes for a great video or picture for Instagram."
Still young, Evan has plenty of time to decide what he wants to do, career-wise. That doesn’t mean he isn’t already debating between videography — he reaches into his backpack to show off a second camera he owns, a Canon Rebel T8I — and riding the rails professionally.
"I’ve been on a couple tourist trains, one in South Dakota’s Black Hills and, of course, the Prairie Dog Central. But I haven’t been on a VIA passenger train and would love to try that out one day to see if I’d like to be an engineer or whatever," he says.
"But what I’ve also read is that railways sometimes hire people to shoot video of their own trains. I mean, how great a job would that be? It’d be like the best of both worlds, right?"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.