They’ve Got a Ticket to Ride

Trainiacs spend their lives going wherever Amtrak will take them

An Amtrak train at Fullerton.
An Amtrak train at Fullerton, Calif.

Peter Warner is not exactly homeless. He simply lives on public transportation. Most specifically, Amtrak trains and intercity buses, with the occasional ferry ride and Metrolink (or similar) tossed into the mix.

In a typical month, Warner travels thousands of miles. In the first half of this year, he reckons, he traveled about 14,000 miles by rail. In November 2017 alone, he logged 12,000 miles, a personal record he loves to boast about as part of his nonstop stream of patter about life on the rails.

Warner is an outgoing, effusive man, but he’s also more than a bit enigmatic. Why trains? “Because I don’t drive a car,” he says. He just travels around the U.S. wherever Amtrak will take him, paying his way with proceeds from survivors’ and disability insurance from his father, who died in 1992. (The bonus trips he earns through Amtrak’s mileage program also keep him going.)

The people who work on the trains know him well. “He’s everywhere. No matter where you are, or what time it is, there’s Peter,” says longtime Amtrak attendant Cynthia Sinclair. “You look up, and there’s Peter. He has been on a few trips to Seattle with me and comes right back the next day to ride back.”

Warner, 43, grew up in Southern California and remembers his first train trip as Oceanside to Fullerton: destination Disneyland (he’s fond of quoting verbatim from the script of the Haunted Mansion ride).

He’s part of a small legion of (mostly) men who spend their lives riding the rails and other mass transportation. They’re known variously as trainspotters, fanners, waggers or train foamers (because they supposedly foam at the mouth at the sight of trains).

To some, like Warner, it’s a lifestyle, but most of the railfans have jobs and homes, and trains are their hobby and passion.

They gather in places like Joe’s, a restaurant and tavern in Fullerton whose menu includes an appetizer described simply as “Fried Junk,” to trade notes about what they’ve seen on the rails and stories about life on the move. The group likes meeting in Fullerton because its station provides great views of a triple track with some 70 freight and passenger trains passing through daily. Joe’s is a short stroll away.

On one recent afternoon, they met up at Joe’s at 5 p.m. to chat and eat before the Amtrak Southwest Chief would be passing through, at 6:45 p.m. according to the timetable.

From left, railroad buffs David Aten, Peter Warner and Rick Ivonovitch wait by the tracks for the arrival of the Southwest Chief at the Amtrak station in Fullerton.
From left, railroad buffs David Aten, Peter Warner and Rick Ivonovitch wait by the tracks for the arrival of the Southwest Chief at the Amtrak station in Fullerton, Calif.

Sitting at one of the high tables at Joe’s was “million-and-a-half-mile rail travel man” Chris Guenzler of Santa Ana, who began accumulating the bulk of his miles when he “got sober on January 18, 1995.” Wearing a baseball cap, dark shades and a “Million Mile Amtrak” T-shirt, Guenzler described some of his favorite trips in detail: “the descent to the front range of the Rockies … you can see Kansas … the Big Ten Curve to Denver … watching the sun come up over Lincoln, Nebraska.”

How does he finance these trips? “Good planning! I work 3.75 hours a day as a special education instructional assistant at Heninger Elementary School” in Santa Ana, he said, sipping a super-sized glass of Coca-Cola. His travel routine includes packing Coke, because “Amtrak is a Pepsi train.”

Where did his fascination with trains begin? “Blame my mom. She took me in a stroller to watch trains.”

Arriving late, fresh from a Kansas City train journey, Warner entered the restaurant. Standing front and center, with the girth and countenance of King Henry VIII, Warner began rattling off details of the railroad and his life to anyone who would listen. Among the sea of words: “Metrolink pass… train 14 to the 31…breakfast at Norm’s … mom and I …” and on and on.

Meanwhile, Chris Parker, a landscaper who lives and works in San Pedro, arrived with a yellow pad to work out a future trip with two other fans, describing his last trip as “wonderful.”

Warner interrupted with his unrivaled blast of words: “The Anaheim station looks like a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark,” he declared. “Wednesday, I’m going to San Diego to get a better picture of the new Courthouse trolley station on C Street … the 1050 trolley will be part of the Karl Strauss Beer Garden.” Next, he listed all the Santa Fe depots and their histories.

The trainiacs left to watch the Southwest Chief depart for Chicago. Before leaving Joe’s, Warner ordered the “breakfast burger” — “You mean the chorizo burger with an egg?” the waitress asked — and a to-go box. He had a train to catch.

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