Robert and Ramona Phelps of Lexington extend goodwill, and enjoy the ride, as members of the North Carolina Train Host Association.
Robert and Ramona Phelps negotiate the aisle through the string of cars on the northbound Carolinian like oceangoing travelers who have found their sea legs.
Attuned to the gentle swaying of the speeding train, they move from car to car, an occasional hand placed on an upholstered seat to steady passage. They smile, say hello, and sometimes pause to speak to passengers.
“You enjoying your trip?” Robert asks a young girl.
“Yes,” she says shyly.
“Where you been?”
“Greensboro,” she replies, wide-eyed.
He gives her some activity sheets printed with children’s games — a word search, connect the dots, and others, including a challenge to find the following things during the trip: a conductor, cows, horses, barns, pine trees, fields, a train station, houses, other trains, cities, and a Train Host.
The girl can check one box off that list.
The Phelpses, from Lexington, are members of the North Carolina Train Host Association, an organization of volunteers who ride passenger trains that cross the Tar Heel state each day — the state-owned Piedmont and the state-supported Carolinian. Train Hosts answer travelers’ questions, assist the crew when asked, and promote rail safety.
“We are actually just an extension of the crew,” Robert says. “They do the work,” Ramona says, smiling. “We do goodwill.”
The Phelpses have served as Train Hosts for more than a dozen years, logging thousands of miles on the railroad.
“If you like to help people,” Robert says, “it’s just a good opportunity to do it.”
Robert and Ramona were not born loving trains, but they might just as well have been weaned on the tracks.
Ramona remembers standing on the platform of the train depot in Lexington as a girl, spellbound, watching trains come and trains go. She especially loved being there at night, when she could catch fleeting glimpses into the lighted interiors of a mysterious yet inviting world, a world where crisply uniformed porters moved efficiently, seemingly at the beck and call of travelers en route to exotic vistas far down the disappearing tracks.
“You were always wishing for what you were seeing through those windows,” she says, recalling an ever-present thought in her mind in those days: “Oh, I wish I was sitting on that train.”
Her father, Clyde Leonard, along with her grandfather and several uncles, worked for the Railway Express Agency, a rail express service for parcels and goods. Its office occupied one portion of Lexington’s depot; the passenger station housed the other end. Her dad often stopped by her school at lunchtime to give her a ride home in his REA delivery truck.
“I spent a lot of time at the Railway Express office,” she says. “If my mother had a meeting at church, it was like a holiday — I got to go back to work with my dad after supper. It was a treat always.”
Robert Phelps, Ramona’s husband of 50 years, fell under the spell of trains when he was quite young, too. His father, T.D. Phelps, was employed by the railroad for 54 years, much of that time spent as assistant cashier for the Norfolk & Western Railroad at the freight station in Winston-Salem.
In those days, rail workers received “white passes” as a perk of employment. The passes let them ride on the N&W anywhere, anytime, for free.
“We went on a lot of train trips,” Robert says.
As a lad growing up in the rural Reeds Crossroads community a few miles outside of Lexington, Robert seldom ventured into town. As a country boy, taking the train to such faraway cities as Washington, D.C., and New York, where he and his dad took in big league baseball games, was like living in a fantasy world. He recalls with great clarity an overnight stay at the Hotel Roanoke during one of his earliest train excursions, where he discovered the luxury of an indoor toilet.
“We had running water at home,” he says, “but not bathrooms.”
Naturally, it did not take long after they met for Robert and Ramona to discover their mutual love of trains. It’s a passion they passed on to their three sons.
“Trains kind of get in your blood,” she says. “Our boys were always into trains. They thought whether we had supper or not we needed to go down and watch the 5:30 train.”
So, three or four afternoons a week when their boys were young, the Phelpses piled into the car to drive downtown to the Lexington depot to watch the 5:30 p.m. train pull in, then pull out.
“It sounds like a crazy pastime,” she says.
When they could afford it, they boarded one of those trains and departed themselves, usually taking special trips on steam trains, such as excursions through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia to see the changing autumn leaves.
“It actually did not matter that much to us what direction we went,” she says, “just so we were on a steam train all day. The boys, when they were little, they would almost cry when they knew it was almost time to get off. Nobody ever wanted to get off.”
Ramona retired about 15 years ago after 32 years as a first-grade teacher. In the late 1990s, with Robert’s retirement from the state Employment Security Commission looming, they traveled to Raleigh, by train, of course, so he could talk to someone face-to-face about his future benefits.
Along the way, they met a nattily attired gentleman on the train talking to passengers.
When they found out the man was a volunteer, Ramona teased that when her husband retired, they were going to take his job. But they did not wait that long. Soon, they were trained Train Hosts, too. Their first trip was in March 1997. In the beginning, they traveled on Robert’s vacation days. After he retired in 1999, they signed up to travel two or three times a month.
Now, they don their dark blue Train Host vests and other official regalia about once a month and drive from Lexington to Salisbury, where they board the northbound Carolinian headed for Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Washington, D.C., and ultimately to New York City. The train pulls out of the historic Salisbury station daily at about 8:25 a.m. The Phelpses (and other Train Hosts) ride only as far as Rocky Mount, returning on the southbound Carolinian, which is scheduled to pass through Salisbury at 7:35 p.m. each day.
Another day on the train
Robert and Ramona were among the first couples to become Train Host volunteers. A taxi driver in Rocky Mount has grown so accustomed to seeing the tag team rail ambassadors roll into town that he calls them “Mr. and Mrs. Amtrak.”
On the days they ride, the Phelpses try to arrive a half-hour before the train leaves Salisbury so they’ll be on hand to answer questions from waiting passengers. Soon after the train pulls out of the station, they take turns on the intercom, introducing themselves, telling passengers to flag them down for assistance.
In a few minutes, they begin rounds, walking from car to car greeting travelers, distributing activity sheets to children and brochures listing points of interest along the train’s route to adults.
Robert said that after a while, it’s easy to spot which passengers do not want to be bothered. Others are eager to chat. On one recent trip, Robert and Ramona swapped stories with an 85-year-old man who was taking his first train trip in 75 years.
Some passengers have questions.
“We’ve learned a lot about trains and train travel,” he says, “so we can pass it on to the people who are riding the trains. We have to, or should, know what’s going on in the towns we pass through.”
They do not handle baggage, but sometimes assist handicapped passengers, bringing food or drink from the dining car. Ramona has been known to hold a baby every chance she gets so a mother can take a bathroom break.
At one time, a visually impaired couple, regular travelers on trips the Phelpses made, each had a Seeing Eye dog. Ramona remembers that it was “a full-time job keeping kids away from the dogs.”
They have helped as Station Hosts when the Santa Train arrives in Salisbury from Charlotte each December, bearing Old Saint Nick and hundreds of children. They also work in the hospitality tent hosted by the state department of transportation during the Lexington Barbecue Festival each October, helping passengers who get off the train at a special stop that day.
Amtrak conductor Harwood Bond views Train Hosts as integral to customer satisfaction.
“We treat them just like crew members,” Bond says. “A lot of times they take care of things we can’t see. They’re really valuable when we’ve got school groups. They keep the passengers really happy.”
The Phelpses plan to roll on as Train Hosts — and everyday train travelers — for as long as they are able. If tracks lead somewhere, it is likely that they have heard the rhythm of the rails there.
A few years ago, Robert organized — into three-ring binders — photographs, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and postcards from places they’ve visited — east, west, south, and north, even on double-decker trains through Canada — along with ticket stubs, maps, and other memorabilia that chronicle their traveling lives.
There are 18 albums, and, apparently, more to come.
“We have no desire to go overseas to go to any other country to see anything,” Robert says. “There’s too much here. There are so many little towns and places. I think it would take a lifetime to complete all that.”
Ramona is onboard with the notion of more train travel to those little towns and places.
“As we always say,” she says, her eyes twinkling, “‘No day on the train is a bad day.’”
Train Hosts: How you can get involved
In 1991, North Carolina was the first state to begin a train hosts program, and a number of states have expressed interest in copying the format, according to Joan Bagherpour, communications manager for the N.C. DOT’s public transportation and rail division.
“This might be a wonderful thing for someone looking for something to do,” Bagherpour says. “We can never have enough good Train Hosts.”
During the 2008 fiscal year (the last year for which complete figures are available), 295,427 passengers took the state-supported Carolinian; 65,941 rode on the state-owned Piedmont. Bagherpour says that early in 2010 a new midday train will begin running in the state, creating the need for even more Train Hosts.
The state has more than 115 active Train Host volunteers, says Teshena DeBrew, operations program coordinator for the N.C. DOT rail division.
“Some are rail fans — they are into trains,” says DeBrew. “But you also have to love people.”
Train Hosts must live in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia and be at least 21 years old. The oldest Train Host in the state is 90. Upon completion of a one-day training session, hosts agree to make at least one host trip every 60 days. When they are on duty, Train Hosts ride Amtrak free in North Carolina.
For more information about becoming a Train Host, contact Teshena DeBrew at (919) 733-7245, ext. 247, or Charles Hiatt, host training coordinator, at (704) 786-1014. Information may be found online at www.bytrain.org/passenger/hosts.html. To learn more about the Amtrak passenger trains that serve North Carolina daily, click the “Routes & Schedules” link, or call (800) BY-TRAIN.
Chip Womick writes for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro and is the author of Remembering Randolph County: Tales from the Center of the Tar Heel State.