Railroad Crossings

I love trains.  I love standing near them at railroad crossings as they roll by, feeling through my feet the vibration from their heaving, swinging weight, hearing from the shriek of steel wheel on steel rail how massive and powerful they are.  

Nothing seems more right for a small, rural town than a railroad crossing in the middle of it.

Nothing seems more right for a small, rural town than a railroad crossing in the middle of it.

Freight trains pass right though the center of Ada.  There's a railroad crossing not too far from my house.  I can hear the blare of the train's horn.  I love the sound, especially at night.  It's sad and lonely, as it should be.  Here's the raw material of our nation, moving hundreds of miles in the dark, so as not to interfere with our own car-powered movements.  Even so, I have yet to be stopped on Main Street by a passing train.  

Those who are frequently interrupted by trains may be more inclined to grouse.  

New Yorkers, for example, have a love/hate relationship with MetroNorth and the Long Island Railroad.  These are not romantic, O. Winston Link trains.  These are steel tin cans with red pleather seats and a lingering, lobotomizing smell of deodorizer wafting from the restroom car.

Stanley, Virginia, 1957.  Copyright Conrad Link.  From The Atlantic's tribute to OWL.

Stanley, Virginia, 1957.  Copyright Conrad Link.  From The Atlantic's tribute to OWL.

They are vital, though.  Tens of thousands of riders rely on them.  So does the New York City economy.  MetroNorth, the LIRR and NJ Transit are the red blood cells of the TriState area, carrying workers and thinkers -- shoppers all -- who oxygenate our system of goods and services.  The Regional Planning Association, in preparation for work on its fourth plan, notes that "good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs," and predicts that most of those opportunities are going to come outside of Manhattan, where rail service is sparse.  It wants more  MetroNorth and LIRR off-peak and reverse commute service and a new strictly-Outer Borough subway line from Brooklyn, through Queens, to the Bronx.  

That'll cost money.  The RPA has proposed in the past financing better rail service by taxing cars, specifically with tolls over now-free bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge.  Everyone except former Mayor Bloomberg groused, and it flopped.  

There's also blistering criticism about the way MetroNorth and the LIRR are run.  MetroNorth has been plagued by tragedies, most recently a collision with a driver whose SUV got stuck on the tracks at a crossing in Valhalla.  She died, along with five passengers, who were killed when the third rail broke free and tore through the railcar like a can opener.  A federal probe following a train derailment in 2013 that killed four people found MetroNorth was more concerned about on-time performance than safety.   Long Island Railroad's retired conductors and engineers, meanwhile, have stolen millions of dollars of your and my money by faking injuries and collecting disability payments.  

More reasons for New York area drivers to grouse while idling before the lowered gate of a railroad crossing.  

But in rural Ohio, the lowered gate signals not just an oncoming train, but jobs.  There's been a boost in freight traffic along CSX's Fort Wayne line, which runs through Ada, because Norfolk Southern is experiencing severe congestion along its line farther north connecting Chicago to Cleveland and points east via Toledo.  The advocacy group All Aboard Ohio calls the Fort Wayne line "the only underutilized rail corridor remaining east from Chicago into Indiana and Ohio." 

Once upon a time, this route was the pride of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the “Standard Railroad of the World.” The double-tracked mainline hosted more than 20 passenger trains per day, some at 100 mph (until the federal 79-mph limit went into effect in 1947), mixed in with twice as many freight trains. But later owners Penn Central (1968-76) and especially Conrail (1976-99) moved freight traffic to the route of PRR’s former rival, the former NYC via Cleveland and Toledo

That move meant neglect.  Stretches of the rail line require train speeds of just ten miles per hour because of poor track conditions.  But Norfolk Southern has been resurfacing the tracks, including portions of it near Ada, in preparation for what the rumor mill says could be five crude oil trains a day, and a multi-freight train every other day.  Railroad geeks are thrilled.  The website Indiana Railroads Bull Session has quite a telling thread going about engineer and conductor jobs.  "Manpower is very short," one guy posted in mid-December.  "They've already had another round of hiring sessions in Fort Wayne since mine less than a month ago."   The increased attention to the Fort Wayne branch even has some rail advocates dreaming of passenger train service between Columbus and Chicago.

I'm down with that, as long as the trains have good safety records, honest employees and clean bathrooms.  I wouldn't mind a little O. Winston Link romanticism, either.  A return to steam engines is out of the question, but how about a pot bellied stove for the waiting room?  And a big, long mournful blast of the horn as the train passes by.

Waiting for the Creeper, 1956 by O. Winston Link.  Creeper?  More like Grim Reaper, from the looks of some.

Waiting for the Creeper, 1956 by O. Winston Link.  Creeper?  More like Grim Reaper, from the looks of some.