• Famous Railfans?

  • Discussion related to railroads/trains that show up in TV shows, commercials, movies, literature (books, poems and more), songs, the Internet, and more... Also includes discussion of well-known figures in the railroad industry or the rail enthusiast hobby.
Discussion related to railroads/trains that show up in TV shows, commercials, movies, literature (books, poems and more), songs, the Internet, and more... Also includes discussion of well-known figures in the railroad industry or the rail enthusiast hobby.

Moderator: Aa3rt

  by MikeB
I know this forum is titled "Famous People in Railroad History" but I didn't know where else to ask my question. Does anybody know of any famous people who are/were railfans? I know boston weather man Barry Burbank is a railfan and used to post train movements on TV during the local newscast (A friend has photos of this). I have reason to believe dIRE sTRAITS guitarist Mark Knopfler is at least familiar with railroads since he's written railroad related lyrics more than a few times and had railroad related pictures in the sleeve of one of his solo albums. Of course this isn't proof.

  by Aa3rt
MikeB-here are some that come readily to my mind.

Walt Disney and Ward Kimball. IIRC, Mr. Kimball was an animator for Disney Studios and had a huge collection of vintage toy trains as well as a 3-foot gauge steamer (the 2-6-0 Emma Nevada from the Nevada Central) running on his property.

For more on Ward Kimball, check out this link:


I've seen photos of Mr. Disney at the Chicago Railroad Fair, held in the late 1940's, inspecting the equipment on display. I believe that it was Mr. Disney's interest in railroads that was instrumental in the train rides being an integral part of Disneyland in southern California.

For more on Walt Disney's interest in railroads, follow this link:


While not necessarily railfans, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Roy Campanella (former Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, until his career was cut short by a tragic auto accident) were well known Lionel collectors. In fact, Joe D. narrated a television show titled "Tales of the Red Caboose", basically a Lionel advertising program, on New York television in the early 1950's.

O. Winston Link, professional photographer by trade, made himself and the Norfolk and Western famous with his photos of the end of steam on that railroad. (See the thread already devoted to him.)

Sportswriter Stan Fischler has also written a couple of volumes on the New York City subways.

Rogers E. M. Whitaker, noted writer for the New York Times, and later the New Yorker magazine, wrote many articles on rail travel under the nom de plume E. M. Frimbo. He is quoted as having said "I became a sports writer...so that someone would have to pay me to go by train to universities in the eastern part of the United States and report on their winter sports". He is credited with having travelled over 2 million miles by train. His book, "All Aboard with E. M. Frimbo-World's Greatest Railroad Buff" is a classic and worth searching out.

Michael Palin, of Monty Python's Flying Circus fame, called himself a "trainspotter" and narrated a couple of programs on PBS involving travel. My favorite, from 20+ years ago was of his travels in England in the "Great Railway Journeys of the World" series.

The late singer Johnny Cash also had an interest in railroads-he had a variety show on television in the late 1960's that always included a segment with railroads. I can still remember the song that started out "Come along and ride this train..."

The late "Boxcar Willie" was another country singer with roots in railroading and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "Singing Brakeman", Jimmie Rodgers who spent a stint with the Southern Railroad before eventually finding fame in the music industry.

A couple of others who came to mind after my first post...

Ellis D. Atwood of Edaville fame.

F. Nelson Blount who started the "Steamtown" collection.

Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" fame.

Joshua Lionel Cowen-while most wouldn't know who Joshua Cowen is, mention "Lionel" and you usually immediately think of model trains.
Last edited by Aa3rt on Sat Dec 15, 2007 7:12 pm, edited 5 times in total.

  by crazy_nip
I can say this honestly...

I have been out railfanning and have come across fellow railfans.

In the course of conversations sometimes we get to talking about the internet and train webpages

I have had my name come up in conversations many times

sometimes in a negative light, most of the times positively...

wont find me on the discovery channel, but in the southeast I am known in circles...

  by Aa3rt
Mr. Nip-you're correct, of course. I guess it all depends on how you define "fame" or "celebrity".

A number of folks who crossed my mind that may be famous in railfan or model railroad circles include:

Thomas Taber, Edwin P. Alexander and Irv Athearn.

A rather prolific author from northwest PA/western New York is Paul Pietrak. He's written a number of volumes on railway history in those areas and I'd consider him a "local" or "regional" celebrity, at least in railfan circles.

I'd assumed that MikeB was looking for famous people who were recognizeable outside of railfan circles. (Ellis D. Atwood and F. Nelson Blount may be stretching it a bit.)

Another entertainment figure who died in recent years (and whose name escapes me at the moment) recently had his Lionel collection auctioned off on Ebay.

  by BR&P
Don't forget Gene Autrey He owned at least one steam engine which I believe still exists. Today it's not unusual for a fan to buy an old S-2 or something, but Gene bought his engine years ago.

  by Richard Y
Interesting subject.
I did not know Gene Autrey was a railfan.
Art, you are a fountain of information regarding the railfans you listed. I would quite agree that Walt Disney should head the list, with his enthusiasm for trains and railroads. I did see the PBS series "Great Railway Journeys of the World", with Michael Palin. Was very interesting.
I might throw in a couple of more names.

* Charles E. Bradshaw, Jr." Mr Bradshaw saw the decline of the Durango and Silverton RR, in 1969, and decided to do something. He helped finance what we now know as a tremendous narrow gauge excursion from Durango to Silverton, Co. Not to mention the many movies filmed along the line..such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

*Antonin Dvorak* (I have to throw this in as a lover of classical music). The great 19th century Czech composer was an avid railroad fan and train spotter. It is said that he learned, at a very early age, some of the railroad songs he heard around his small, Bohemia village train station (not to leave out a whole array of Czech folk songs which influenced him). He came to the US in 1892 to head the National Conservatory of Music, in New York, and spent the summers in Spillville, Iowa which had a small Czech community. He complained that, with his music composition, he did not have enough time to train spot and ride the rails. At one point of time, he sent a young man, who was engaged to his daughter, down to a local train station to get the number of a locomotive he wanted to follow, or train spot. The young man mistakenly wrote down the number of the locomotive's coal tender, instead of the locomotive. Dvorak later commented that he did now see how the young man could become a suitable husband, for his daughter, if he could not get his train numbers straight.

  by LI Loco
Another well-known rail fan was Lucius Beebe who was a well-known society writer until a scandal forced him to move to Nevada. Beebe and his companion, Charles Clegg, owned the private car Virginia City, which I believe is on display at the California State RR Museum in Sacramento.

  by Metalrailz
Jon Bon Jovi has been seen at the Whippany railroad museum in NJ, also has been seen numerous times at the station by where he lives.

  by BMT
Three famous railfans that come to mind immediately:

Tom Snyder (former news reporter and Talk-show Host)

Gary Coleman (child-star of '70's series 'Different Strokes')

Zacherly ('50s radio & TV host)

  by mb41
Famous rail fans, hmmm. well I guess that can go a few different ways.

Mr. Sanders (founder of KFC) was a trolley conductor in 1908, maybe he was not s fan but we worked the industry before chicken :)

Yes, Walt Disney worked for the elevated railway.

I think famous rail fans don't need to have big careers like the Microsoft guy Bill Gates, I hear he likes trains too.

I think normal people like Teddy Santarelli are famous rail fans, he founded and built the Seashore Trolley Musuem, now that to me is a famous rail fan :)

  by StevieC48
MTA Boston General Mnager Edward M Dana was a fan as well as former MBTA GM Robert Prince. and of course State Transportation Librian George Sanborn

  by emd_SD_60
Michael Gross, the dad on "Family Ties" is a railfan also. If i'm not mistaken, he's always on those infomercials late at night promoting some sort of train videos. :wink: Also wasn't he involved with the Santa Fe Southern railway?

  by james1787
Neil Young, not sure how much of a railfan is but he has a large lionel collection and I think he has part ownership of Lionel. He came up with the idea for Lionel's Train Master Command Control because of his son, who has Cerebal Palsy. I've also heard that when he tours.. there is some sort of layout that comes along with him.

  by MR77100
What did Walter Disney do on the CTA? Gary Coleman is a railfan?

  by Aa3rt
Gary Coleman's interest in model trains is fairly well known. IIRC, he appeared on a cover of Railroad Model Craftsman a number of years ago that included a feature article on his HO scale model railroad. LGB trains were always on the shelves in Willis' and Arnold's bedroom on the TV show "Different Strokes".

I was unaware that Walt Disney was employed with an elevated railway. I remember that he grew up on a farm in the midwest (Kansas maybe?) and even at an early age had an affinity for drawing animals.