11/15/2011 07:56 am ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

In Texas, Electric Trains Old And New

More than 100 years ago, train cars were chugging across Texas powered not by the oil for which the state is famous or even by the coal that provides that storybook puff of exhaust billowing from the smoke stack. No, these trains were running on electricity. That electric trains in the United States have such a lengthy history was news to me, but at the Interurban Railway Museum in Plano, Texas that's just part of the story.

My tour guide, Judith Oldham, was as proud of the jaunty renovated red and yellow rail car on display as if she'd built and run it herself. I think perhaps she could have, judging from her knowledgeable explanation of how high voltage alternating current was bumped down to direct current at the electric sub station behind the passenger depot.

On a sunny afternoon this fall, Judith walked me through the multifunctional rail car, stopping first at the little mobile post office in the back end where letters in big canvas bags were sorted and delivered as the train made its way along the 130 miles of track between Dennison and Waco.

Through the narrow glass door and into the passenger section, a hinged sign on the wall reading "white" was a jarring reminder of the days of racial segregation. The cushy seats farther forward suggests there was economic segregation as well.

They've packed in a whole lot of information about trains, innovative engineering and their impact on the east Texas economy into the adorable wood frame station house/museum at one end of Plano's little "old town." A placard on the station door reminds visitors that trains were eclipsed in the 1940s by Americans' new love, the automobile.

Now here we are with too many automobiles and not enough trains -- and the trend in autos is right back to electric power, as if the past 100 years has shown us that the original idea wasn't so wacky after all.

I'm enjoying the irony of all this when the electric-powered Dallas Area Rapid Transit train known as the Dart goes flying by me in a blur. It has a pretty yellow paint scheme and a promise to be green. It's a cheery reminder that what goes around comes around and that's okay with me.