Filmmaker hits the railways
Thursday, March 18, 2004

There’s something about railroads that I just love. Maybe it’s that rose-colored idea of travel, of catching a rail like some modern-day Woody Guthrie. All I know is I never tire of hearing Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.’’ Or better yet, I could eyeball all day the intricate layouts created by the Carolina Model Railroaders at The Depot in downtown Greensboro and watch those small, make-believe diesels slice through a town the size of several kitchen tables stacked end to end.

So, when Winston-Salem filmmaker Rob Van Camp passed along his latest documentary, “Great Scenic Railway Journeys,’’ I knew I’d watch it, especially with UNC-TV rolling it out this weekend during its annual fundraising drive.

But I never thought I’d watch it again and again. Maybe it’s the train geek in me. Or maybe it’s just my 5-year-old son saying repeatedly, “Dad, can we watch the train video?’’ But whatever it is, Van Camp has delivered a cinematic love letter to train enthusiasts nationwide.

Two years ago, Van Camp trained his camera on 22 scenic railways nationwide for nearly four months. He caught 280 hours of film and trimmed it down into a 110-minute documentary in which he teammed up with acclaimed storyteller and musician, David Holt, and offered up such passenger soundbites as “This shows you romance isn’t dead.’’


But Van Camp’s images are what grab you. He climbed onto a helicopter, clamored on top of a caboose and perched on the nose of a 40-ton engine to snag shots that seem as American as a Grant Wood painting.

So, it’s no wonder that his mother said to him after watching his latest documentary: “Rob, I don’t want to know how you got that shot. As long as you’re home and safe.’’

But I think we’re all better for it. Sure, “Great Scenic Railway Journeys’’ is a public-relations postcard. But during a time when half of the railroad tracks have disappeared nationwide because of merged railroads, highway development and dwindling need, Van Camp’s documentary shows you why the backbone of American transportation needs to be preserved, protected and even admired.

“I just want people to think,’’ says Van Camp, 39. “This is our life.’’

Like any kid, Van Camp got infatuated with trains early. He got his first model train set at age 4. But he really fell in love with the whole romantic notion of trains when he was 25, working in the Winston-Salem office of WFMY (Channel 2) and looking for a feature on a slow news day.

That’s when he discovered the Yadkin Valley Railroad. It’s a 60-mile line that winds through central Noth Carolina and hauls everything from chicken feed to coal from Rural Hall to North Wilkesboro. Listen to Van Camp’s feature, and you’ll hear the thick-tongued accents of a mechanic, barber and former Mt. Airy cop who talk about their passion of working on an engine plugging along at 35 mph.

His four-minute piece — a lifetime in local TV news — won a handful of awards. But that one piece also did something else. When he left WFMY in 1993 to start his own one-man video company, he knew he wanted to do more documentaries about trains and the people who keep them running.

Today, he’s done eight – one as far away as Australia.

“What makes it for me is when I talk to the people,’’ says Van Camp, who won eight regional Emmys for his documentaries. “It only takes one person to save a line, and it’s amazing because that one person can make a positive impact in the world. All it takes is a spark.’’

Van Camp has been busy this week. After spending four days shooting the ACC Tournament for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Van Camp flew to Grand Rapids, Mi., and later to St. Louis, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Tonight, he’ll drive to Roanoke, Va.; On Saturday, he’ll head south to Columbia, S.C. All to do the same thing: go on-air and pitch for PBS and his documentary during their annual fund drives. On Sunday, he’ll do it all over again for UNC-TV.

It must be working. His documentary has raised tens of thousands of dollars for PBS stations nationwide and sparked a renewed interest in scenic railways. One general manager of a scenic railway in Boone, Iowa, told me he got this recent e-mail from a PBS viewer in Pennsylvania: “Saw your special on PBS. Wow.’’