Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A View from the Locomotive

My first job out of college was with a large freight railroad company. One of the best experiences I had was the week I was able to experience rail operations first hand.

I got to run a railroad.

Okay, it was only a 13-mile shortline that is wholly owned by my former employer. It was dinky. I didn’t care if it was 1,300 miles. I got to get up and run an engine!

A typical train hauls thousands
of tons of freight.

My companions and I jacked rail, replaced ties and pounded spikes. We coupled cars to the train and pulled them apart. We rode in the locomotive cab or we stood on the walkway of the engine as it hauled cars to local businesses. It was fabulous, filthy, hard work.

When it was my turn to sit at the controls of the small locomotive my adrenaline surged. It was only a 1,500 horsepower switch engine and weighed just a smidge over 100 tons. It was little for a locomotive, but it was the largest machine I ever hope to control.

We spent hours in the yard, practicing with the throttle, learning how much power to give in order to reach a specific spot. We controlled the location of the train exactly the way real engineers do - by manipulating the energy of the traction motors and understanding how the weight of the cars affect stopping distance.

So imagine how freaked out I was when cars crossed just yards ahead of us as we rode along on a trip out to the main line. I’d just spent the day watching a four-car train roll on at length after cutting the throttle – and occasionally stomping on a non-existent brake pedal.

My yells mixed with the train’s horn when we came across a family taking a stroll on the tracks.

“People!” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you have any sense? This train could crush you!”

I’d read many company reports about situations like this. They described people maimed and killed. Bodies mangled, pinched or struck into mist. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about the folks on the rail in front of me.

The crew of instructors noticed my horror.

“We see this every day,” they said. “People take chances like this all the time.” They don’t like to talk about the times it doesn’t end well – nightmarish incidents they were helpless to stop. When they do open up, train crews can describe every detail. They never forget the car or truck stalled on the track, the hunter who was trapped on a rail bridge, the teen listening to tunes as she walked between the rails. They don’t like to talk about it – but they do – hoping people will listen.

*** This is where I'd planned to end this blog post. Then I opened the newspaper. It's happened again. ***

In the past several weeks four Missouri teens have died in train incidents. In two separate incidents, young men did not hear the trains that killed them because their ears were filled with music and earbuds. Two young ladies perished when their car refused to start after they'd parked on the tracks at a crossing in order to spook themselves by playing out a local legend. Three tragedies and four lives ended.

Talk. Talk to teens. Talk to adults. Talk to anyone you know who walks on or around rail tracks.

Railroad tracks are not pedestrian paths. They are industrial, private property where large machines operate.
If you must cross them, cross them quickly.

Use your senses. Look for a train. Keep your ears clear so you can hear them approach. Don't ignore rumbles or vibrations.

Look. Listen. Live.