December 17, 2023

Seldom Willing: A Novel of Railroading

Many of us are familiar with Fred Frailey, the journalist, author, and long-time former columnist for Trains Magazine who has written some of the best non-fiction books on the American rail industry.

His best-known book is Twilight of the Great Trains, an authoritative and well-illustrated monograph on the decline of American intercity passenger rail in the Post War Era, with a focus on the eleven railroads that either hastened, accommodated, or fought the decline of their pre-Amtrak passenger services.

Well Mr. Frailey has added to that pile of non-fiction a new work, a work of fiction entitled: Seldom Willing: A Novel of Railroading. Those of us who followed Frailey’s blog posts on will likely recall his musings on writing a railroad novel, and now will be happy that he finally published one this year.

The novel is very comparable to those of British-Canadian writer Arthur Hailey, whose novels – including Hotel, Airport, The Moneychangers, and Overload – had a focus on a specific industry, like the electric utility in Overload, his plot driven narratives being told through the points of view of various characters, high and low, within an industry.

In Seldom Willing the focus is on the North American freight railroad industry of the late-1970s, an uncertain time of great change within the struggling rail industry.

The scrappy can-do free enterprise spirit of the novel might also remind some of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged with its main character of Dagny Taggart and her transcontinental railroad, however what Mr. Frailey is preaching – while telling a delightful story – is on how to run a good railroad, while treating people fairly and making a profit while doing so.

Frailey does an excellent job in explaining how a railroad works – all without bogging down the narrative – from the technology, procedures, and operations on the ground to the management in the corporate office suites.

The primary character of the novel is Chet Whitfield – a union card holding former engineer who ascended to management – who now runs the Kansas Division of the fictitious Central Pacific Railroad. A hard-working middle-aged man who recently lost his wife to cancer, Whitfield seems set to finish his rail career in middle management.

Yet when an ill-conceived consultant plan to downsize the Midwestern railroad runs into the political opposition of a powerful grain elevator owner, the Kansas Division is spun off as the South West Kansas Railway – named after its 19th Century predecessor line that was nicked named “The Seldon Willing” – Whitfield finds himself as the president of the new railroad.

To survive the railroad will have to become more efficient – Frailey bringing in and crediting innovations from the Santa Fe and Florida East Coast Railway – and to grow by acquiring trackage rights and mainlines from connecting railroads, some teetering on bankruptcy.

Yet it’s not all corporate strategy and political maneuvering, in the course of the novel there is plenty of action, from train robbers to disgruntled former employees sabotaging the new railroad.

And the novel certainly begins with a bang, with a fiery derailment due to in part a young woman in a bikini holding a bottle of whiskey in a swamp in the dead of night. Just one of the many crises that Whitfield must deal with, all while trying not to be distracted by wondering when the top button on the blouse of his head of marketing will finally pop off.

Overall, the novel is progressive in its characters, reflecting the changing demographics of America and the search for the best talent no matter the gender, color, or creed – from women train engineers to immigrant chief financial officers. As stated earlier, this is a book on how to run a good railroad, wrapped up in a fine work of fiction.

Seldom Willing: A Novel of Railroading by Fred Frailey is available online on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle for $30, $20, and $10.

Benjamin Turon