Meet Carl Swanson, Q&A with the Editors

Two men seated in a video studio with dramatic lighting.

Meet Carl Swanson, Trains Editor in this Q&A with the Editors. Unlimited Members can see the video in the Video section.

Two men seated in a video studio with dramatic lighting.
Carl Swanson, Trains Editor

Steve Sweeney: Welcome everyone. This is the very first episode for Q&A with the Editors, a new special. We’re so glad all of you can join us. For our very first episode, we have Carl Swanson, editor of Trains Magazine. I’m so glad you could join us for this very first episode. You recently started a new position with Kalmbach at Trains, although you’ve been with the company for a few years. May I ask you a bit about your background?

Carl Swanson: Sure. I was a newspaper reporter in Nebraska, and I contributed some photos to a magazine called Pacific RailNews. They contacted me and said they had an opening with the sister magazine Passenger Train Journal, which resulted in me moving to Wisconsin 30-some years ago. From there, I came across town to Kalmbach and for the last 25 years, I’ve held a variety of editorial positions here in the company. Most recently, a couple of months ago, I was named Editor of Trains Magazine.

SS: Carl, for your benefit and for everyone else’s benefit, I have created five standard questions that I at least have to ask every editor who graces our stage. So, I’d like to start those with you if that’s okay. What is your favorite railroad, present or past, and why?

CS: Well, because of my background, just about any railroad that served the Midwest is going to be really high up in my favorites list. I have a special fondness for Burlington Northern and Chicago & North Western, which kind of dates me. But, if I had to narrow it down to one, I would say it was the Union Pacific.

There’s a little bit of family history there. When Union Pacific was built, part of the deal that got the railroad built was public lands were given to the railroad to resell to settlers, and that helped pay for the cost of the railroad. My great, grandfather purchased land from Union Pacific to homestead and I still have the land deed. I always feel like I had a personal connection to Union Pacific’s success.

SS: Oh, you certainly do. That’s a fantastic story. I don’t know of anyone else who has a story just like that.

CS: It’s pretty cool. History is a big passion of mine. So, that’s anything that connects railroads and history, I’m always going to pay attention to.

SS: Wonderful. Okay, next question. What is the best part about what you do?

CS: You know, that’s a great question because I think the best way to sum it up is to say that, if anything interesting happens in railroading, I hear about it and chances are I might even get a chance to go see it. It goes kind of deeper than that. Many of the contributors to Trains Magazine are the best writers and photographers out there, and many of them I’ve known for many years. So, dealing with friends and dealing with people that have a tremendous expertise, it’s a great position to be in, and frankly, it’s just a lot of fun.

SS: Now I know you’ve only been in the Trains job for a couple of months but tell us something exciting you’ve been working on lately.

CS: Well, the really big thing that comes to mind is the Locomotive annual. We just sent that off to the printer and that will be available on newsstands this fall. Greg McDonald does that as a contributing editor and turns it in to us to put the final polish on and get it off to the printing folks. It’s a tremendous issue. I really had a good time reading that issue. There’s terrific stuff in it: There’s a retrospect of Electro-Motive Division at 100, a discussion about General Electric’s Dash 8, and a Ted Benson photo essay from back in the day about a ride along on Union Pacific’s Centennial locomotives. So, lots of special stuff in that and that was just a joy to work on.

SS: This isn’t one of my standard questions, but do you have a favorite locomotive type?

CS: I do, and it’s the GP30.

SS: Okay, why is that?

CS: When I was a little kid, that was the first one that I learned to recognize. Locomotives were locomotives, except for that one, because of a sort of hunchback profile. I knew that was a GP30. So, ever since then, I’ve had sort of a fondness for that particular locomotive. And the Locomotive special issue that’s coming out has an article on GP30s.

SS: Now was that prearranged? Did you sort of put your finger on the scales on that one?

CS: I think that might have been a happy accident or it might have been fate.

SS: Now, you have held different positions, so you can go in any direction you want to with this. What interests you most about railfanning or rail modeling or rail research, etc.? What interests you most about those things that we do and are engaged in?

CS: I think part of it is trying to understand an industry that’s large, dynamic, central, and has such a tremendous history behind it. There are so many threads involved in being interested in railroading that it never really gets dull. There’s always something going on in and always reflections of the past. It’s sort of the never-ending story.

SS: Next question. If you were working for the railroad, what railroad craft or position best describes you?

CS: Public relations, custodial, somewhere in between. Maybe I’m the conductor of the train — the engineer has the action-packed side of things, but I have sort of the overall big picture. So, I think that might be the best one.

SS: A little bit about current events. Just in the past couple of years, and then certainly this summer, there has been a lot of news in railroading – in the industry and also on the rail hobby side. Big Boy has come back to life, Chesapeake & Ohio locomotive No. 1309 “Beast of the East” is out there, and there’s a lot more steam locomotives coming back. In the rail industry itself this year, we’re having sort of a meltdown in labor relations with rail unions and the railroads, and services deteriorating. Of all of these different things that are out there, what stands out to you as something that Trains readers and visitors really need to pay attention, read more, and think about?

CS: I think probably Amtrak would be the one that people need to pay attention to.

SS: Why is that?

CS: I think they’re running into some problems of having equipment shortages. They’ve had to shorten trains. They’ve had to even cancel occasional trains. That’s an issue that really needs to be resolved. But there seems to be more movement toward improving Amtrak’s funding. So, I think of all the things out there, that’s the one that’s most intriguing to me because I feel that there are large problems, but there’s also huge opportunities. I think that’s something that’s going to be deserving of more focus.

The rail labor situation, that is a truly a mess. Bill Stephens and David Lassen, they’re doing a good job of staying on top of a very complicated story. So, that’s something that we’ll be following. But it’s a dynamic industry, like I said, and there’s many moving parts to it.

SS: I’m interested when hopefully all of the bad times that we’re in now passes – post-pandemic and whatever economic things that we’re into. What do you think are railroads when they are their best selves?

CS: Obviously, the fact that they transport so much of the raw materials that we depend on. That is something that they do day in and day out, that most people don’t really appreciate the impact that railroads have on our economy. So, I feel that’s probably where I would go with that answer.

SS: For those of you who are watching this on, one opportunity we have for you is if you are a Unlimited Member, you get to ask the editor’s questions. For this episode, we have only one question in, and the question is rather long. It’s an explanation of the question.

But for you, Carl, “I only started reading Trains when I became an Unlimited Member about a year ago. Much of what I read has concerned the business side of operating the railroads. If possible, I would like to see more of the engineering side: Stories like how operation of newer diesels is different or easier for the crew, what features make the newer diesels more different, some in-cab photos or videos of trains in operation.” And then, parenthetically, “I really love the older Model Railroader series ‘Taking Care of Business.’”

So, I guess more of a statement. Do you think that’s possible we can get more of that in?

CS: I think so. Trains Magazine has always prided itself on getting readers sort of inside the cab, so to speak. You know, we not only show what’s going on in the world of railroading, we also explain it. We take you on board the trains and into the executive boardrooms. I don’t think there’s a magazine out there that covers an industry as well as Trains does.

To the reader’s point, and it really is a great question, yes, I would like to see more of those stories myself and that’s something we’ll be working toward. I can say that we recently got a cab ride with Union Pacific’s Big Boy, and we are going to have a story on that coming up in the magazine, as well as some stuff on We are quite literally taking you inside the cab now.

SS: That’s fantastic. Okay, Carl, two more quick questions for our audience. I’ve got to know now. You have an interest in Amtrak and passenger trains, and it seems like you’re interested in engineering and the business side. This is excellent news. What would be a plum assignment for you as editor of the magazine? Where do you want to go and what do you want to see?

CS: Well, I’ll tell you we have one of the plum assignments is that I can pretty much decide where I’m going to go and what I’m going to see. And where I’m going to go is out to the Western Maryland to see No. 1309 operate. We’re doing an exclusive photo charter out there for our readers, and I’ll be helping out with that. That’s going to be something that’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see it. I’ve read so much about that locomotive, but I’ve never seen it in person. So, that’s going to be good fun. In November, we’re going to be doing a photo charter with Soo Line No. 1003, so I’ll also be helping out with that, breathing in that good coal smoke, and taking in the sights and sounds of working steam.

SS: That’s fantastic.

CS: And these are the perks of the job, folks.

SS: Off camera and beforehand, you mentioned to me that this is a railfan’s dream job. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit for me.

CS: Well, I think it’s pretty straightforward. If you have an interest in railroading, this is sort of the epicenter of it. You see all the railroads, you see all of what they’re doing, you go everywhere, and you do everything. This truly is a railfan’s dream job.

SS: In ten years’ time, where do you see Trains Magazine?

CS: Well, I think that it’s going to be an interesting time coming up because we have a website,, and we’re going to be doing more and more with our website. I think the digital component of it is going to be tremendous and very exciting. I’m looking forward to that and I’m looking forward to keeping the print-magazine standards as high as they traditionally have been. That’s a huge challenge because the magazine standards are truly high. But if I’m lucky and have some good help out there, I’ll be able to pull it off.

SS: Carl, anything else you’d like to add to our conversation?

CS: Nope. Just stay tuned, there’s much more coming, folks.

SS: Excellent. Carl, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

CS: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it, too.