The Trainiac

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June 21, 2004 // UPDATED 2:13 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

They bonded with their childhood choo-choos and are thrilled about light-rail's debut -- none more than 'rail nut' George Isaacs

His wife calls him the "Godfather of the LRT." The name appears to fit. Walk into rail fanatic George Isaacs' home in Roseville and you'll know instantly what Florence Isaacs is talking about.

Several tributes to the train are on display. A working electric model of the East Coast trains of his youth sits on one table; the smaller LRT model with a painted city skyline as a backdrop sits on the other table. A cardboard Hiawatha LRT model sits atop his television set, and several train posters line the stairs to his basement, which is completely devoted to all things rail.

"There's a lot of us rail nuts out there," Isaacs said, as he showed off an electrical light-rail transit model in his basement.

A native of White Plains, N.Y., Isaacs, 82, says he's been "hooked on" the rail since age 4. The retired electrical engineer and retired president of the Minnesota Transportation Museum has an infectious enthusiasm about trains.

Isaacs has been pushing for the LRT since the 1970s.

He displayed the model 20 years ago in the IDS Center's Crystal Court, 80 S. 8th St. When he unveiled the futuristic train Downtown years ago, most people viewed it with some skepticism.

"They'd say, 'That's a nice toy,'" Isaacs said.

To Isaacs, it's much more than a plaything.

The LRT model mimics the Hiawatha line as the cars are pulled along by electrical poles overhead. The trains can be shy, Isaacs cautioned as he turned on the power switch, showing off the model on a recent afternoon. Sometimes there's a delay when spectators watch.

"Oh! It's working," he chuckled, as one started to roll along the tracks.

Isaacs' model included some old red Metro Transit buses, too. The train's links to buses are critical to its success, he said.

For all his enthusiasm, Isaacs, a pro-bono technical advisor on the Hiawatha line, is also a realist.

"I'm looking forward to see how this thing will work. There will be some teething problems," he said, such as signaling problems and other quirks.

Isaacs was asked to sit in on Metro Transit meetings when officials considered five light-rail vendors, including the ultimate winner, Canadian manufacturer Bombardier. He also worked on design study groups.

Hiawatha Project Office spokesman Josh Collins had high praise for Isaacs and his work on behalf of LRT.

"George Isaacs has been trying to see the Hiawatha Line built for longer than I have been alive," he said. "If anyone can take credit for the Hiawatha Line existing, it is George. He has been pushing for it and speaking to groups about it for years and years."

In the 1970s, Isaacs pushed Twin Cities transit officials to resurrect the old streetcar system that had been laid to rest on June 19, 1954. (Cheaper and faster buses replaced the streetcars as the dominant form of public transportation.)

In the past 30 years, Isaacs estimates he has made 205 presentations to business and community groups on the light rail's benefits. He also sat on the Regional Transit Board from 1987 to 1989 -- a group that studied rail development.

For light rail's opening day, Saturday, June 26, Isaacs is scheduled to make light rail presentations at the Government Plaza Station, between 3rd and 4th avenues South on 5th Street.

In the presentations, he makes the case for light rail and talks about developing lines from Minneapolis to St. Paul along University Avenue, along the Interstate 35W Corridor and between Downtown and Hopkins.

Years ago, he urged officials to consider bringing the streetcars back for a light-rail route between Downtown and the airport along Hiawatha Avenue and opposed plans to expand the avenue into a highway.

He predicted a "fantastic resurgence of business, industry and living along Hiawatha," according to a Minneapolis Tribune article published June 18, 1974.

Isaacs and Florence, his wife of 56 years, have traveled by rail all over the country and the world. From New York City's subway to trains in Europe and China, it's clearly the couple's preferred method of traveling.

So what is it about rail that gets the Isaacs so excited?

"I became enthralled by electric-rail transit as a child. I used it as a child and as young adult up until I joined the Navy in 1942," he said. "We used streetcars. We used the subway. We used the streetcars in the Bronx, plus I started modeling electrically powered rail vehicles."

His son, Aaron Isaacs, a Metro Transit facilities planning manager, shares his dad's enthusiasm for rail.

Aaron Isaacs, 55, has worked on transit issues for 30 years.

"I've grown up with this stuff," he said. "My dad took me on trolleys and subways when I was a baby."

Aaron Isaacs said his father always seems to be ahead of the curve on rail issues, often following light rail in Europe, which tends to be ahead of the United States in developing new lines.

"He's just one of those people who gets things done and makes things happen. He has always been that way," he said.

George Isaacs sees several benefits to rail travel.

He argues that light-rail transit is quieter and more environmentally friendly than cars and buses. It also spurs development, he argued, pointing to planned projects along the line in Bloomington and South Minneapolis.

"Rail transit adds a degree of permanency to any place it is added," he said, pointing to Portland, Ore., as a model in transit.

Portland recently added a fourth light-rail line to its system. It has 46 miles of track and an estimated 80,000 riders.

The Hiawatha Line, when fully complete, will span 12 miles from Downtown to the Mall of America.

Loring Park resident Joe Scala, an information technology consultant who works at the AT&T Building, 901 Marquette Ave. S., considers George Isaacs a "kindred spirit."

Scala, another rail-obsessed native East Coaster, is equally excited about the light rail's opening day in the Twin Cities.

He grew up with transit in Jersey City, N.J. and often travels by rail around the country. In Minneapolis, he walks to work and rides the bus when he needs to get somewhere not convenient by foot.

The rail fanatic, who has put in more than 1,000 volunteer hours on behalf of the Hiawatha Light Rail Project Office, has taken a test drive on the LRT.

"It made places that were familiar look new and exciting to me," he said.

Scala considers George Isaacs an "elder" among the rail advocates in the Twin Cities.

"He is a visionary," he said. "I look upon him with a lot of respect."