When most of us hear the word “startup,” we think of a group of doughty entrepreneurs, armed with the latest tech, conjuring up new ways to eliminate friction from the marketplace in a way that makes them — and their early-stage investors — very rich.
But business startups come in an almost unlimited number of forms, and it turns out there are many more ways to eliminate friction from the economy than building apps. One of the oddest but in a way coolest startups to come our way is The East Terminal Railway, a project happening in near real time on YouTube that tracks the progress of a father-and-son team in their unusual — but highly compelling quest — to bring a long-abandoned stretch of railroad back to life somewhere in Ohio. (The precise location of the railroad is being withheld due to safety and privacy concerns).
Now I’m almost 100 percent sure that if I didn’t have a soft spot for transportation, I’d probably dismiss these two guys as modern-day Don Quixotes tilting at crossbucks. Without knowing any financial details concerning their operation, I’d be more than skeptical about their dreams of reclaiming this long-lost stretch of iron and turning it into a profitable operation. You’d count me among the “peanut gallery” of YouTube commentators arguing that the old joke that goes “What’s the best way to make a small fortune in railroading? Start out with a large fortune!” still applies, especially for two dudes who’ve never taken on this kind of ambitious undertaking.
But there’s something enormously compelling about what these guys are doing. Perhaps it’s the fact that this project celebrates physical work — and I mean down in the weeds, chainsaw-level, fume-breathing work — the kind of work that’s become synonymous with career failure among coastal elite circles. Perhaps it’s because — for reasons aforementioned — none of us really know where this railroad is (although sleuths at Trains Magazine claim to have figured this out), lending it an air of authentic mystery.
Perhaps it’s the fact that this father/son team appears to actually be a functioning unit — something that seems rare today (although it’s probably a lot more common than our dysfunctional syndrome-obsessed media regularly indicates). When we watch these guys in action, or even joshing around, we’re actually viewing the transfer of working knowledge from one generation to the next, a core part of the human family’s story.
But I’d guess that the single most intriguing aspect of this project is the most obvious one: nobody — not the father, not the son, nor anyone in the project’s growing YouTube audience — knows how this thing will turn out. The guys could rise to the occasion or they could fail. They could be overtaken by events, or break through into empire-building territory a la R.J. Corman. It’s all up for grabs, and destiny – as well as the devil — lives in the details.
What is also very clear is that people — all across the world it seems — want to help this little project along, and this help comes in the form of well-intentioned expert advice — supplied gratis from the YouTube commentariat — that is often taken seriously enough by the East Terminal Railway pair to make its way into the next episode to go on online. In effect, the ongoing virtual saga of the East Terminal Railway is an open-ended experiment in open-source information sharing that brings together the collective expertise of a worldwide audience in a way that potentially makes a huge difference on the ground (literally).
So no, the East Terminal Railway isn’t your father’s startup. These guys may never make it onto the cover of Wired, or even Railway Age. They’ll probably never “disrupt” an incumbent industry. They might not even succeed in bringing their short stretch of track back to profitable life.
But one thing I’ll tell you and this comes from the heart: I want these guys to win. In fact, I want these guys to win so big that they inspire a movement to reclaim all of the abandoned, railbanked, disused and/or underutilized trackage in the land and put it to productive use in a way that actually removes friction — through the magic of steel, flanged wheels on steel rails — from the transportation network. That’s a very tall order and perhaps it’s just an unreconstructed railfan’s pipe dream. But you don’t bring the national rail network back to life in one fell swoop. You do it yard by yard, tie by tie, and then and only then mile by mile.
In the meantime, consider me hooked on the progress of the East Terminal Railway. If you’ve ever had a hankering to see what can be done by two guys, with grit, a plan, a growing assortment of obscure earth-moving equipment, and a big dream, check it out.