#traintravel: the unexpected

IMG_20190311_083126I often take photos as I ride the train — I firmly believe it is the only way to see America. Road travel, unless using secondary roads, does not provide a real glimpse into America’s cities and rural areas — but even that view is limited. To get into the real America, it is essential to get into alleyways; I use this same methodology when looking for a new place to live as well — you can tell a lot about a neighborhood or town by what you can find in any given alleyway, be it trash or gardens.

While heading north yesterday, I had just snapped this photo in West Baltimore as our train came to a stop — not a jarring stop, but an unexpected one as I gazed down from the overpass where my car #3 was perched. I felt victorious when I boarded the train yesterday — with the help of the wonderful Amtrak Red Cap, I was the first one to board the quiet car. Frequent Amtrak riders know that the quiet car is the best — no cell phone calls, usually more room and people are just busy working or reading. The quiet car also doesn’t carry the extra cost of business class; as a plus the WiFi is generally more stable in the quiet car for its proximity to the business car, unlike the complete unreliability of connectivity in the general cars.

As we came to our stop, I was just finishing the last of my weekly prep for classes when one of the conductors announced, “We have a train emergency. We need everyone to stay calm. We have a tresspasser on the tracks, and we’ve had an incident.” Now, because lots of my fellow passengers had headphones on, not many heard this announcement. It’s not unusual for a train to stop to let other, faster train traffic through at odd spots along our northward route so at this point, no one is even thinking it’s a disaster to be sitting on an overpass. By the second announcement, people are starting to peek up over chair backs to ask neighbors what is going on. By the conductor’s second announcement, we know the truth – our train has struck someone. By the third announcement, we know the victim is female. By the fourth announcement, we now know that EMS is on the way — and from my vantage point on the overpass, I can see the ambulance pass underneath our perch. I start sending notes to my family to let them know where I am; and a forward note to my meeting still several cities away that I may be late. Then I google the accident.

Train accidents are more common that we all may think. The big ones, cars or trucks stuck on the tracks or cars racing trains make the televised news. People on the tracks rarely make headlines, and in 2017 over 2,100 people were struck by moving trains. This is no small number, and in fact is a crisis. Train tracks are usually fenced off, hence the conductor’s announcement of a trespasser on the tracks; but this hardly means tracks are inaccessible to humans. The report of our accident described the female victim as, “attempting to cross the tracks” — yet, there is no reason to cross the tracks at this urban, overpass setting. No reason.

We were allowed to move slowly into Baltimore after EMS departed and an inspection of the tracks by law enforcement; and allowed to leave our train to quickly transfer to another headed north to reach our destinations as our train’s crew was pulled out of service and the train put to rest until a full investigation took place. I learned from a fellow passenger, who had been on another train that struck someone that we were lucky — based on the shortness of our delay, the victim was alive. Had the victim been a fatality, our delay suspended above West Baltimore, would’ve been several hours of shelter-in-place. Lucky is not a word I’d use; fortunate maybe, that we only lost an hour of our morning and that we have our health to race to another train, up a flight of stairs and down another. Fortunate that we ourselves did not attempt to cross the tracks in front of a train going upwards of 50 mph as it rounds a bend into downtown Baltimore. Fortunate that we did not suffer from whatever reason the victim chose to cross the tracks, and fortunate that we do not bear the injuries that must’ve resulted from such an impact. The victim was reported by local news to not only be alive, but alert. Alert most certainly is not fortunate.

Meetings aside, I spent most of the day searching for news…any update on the victim. Does she have a family? Does she have friends to rush to her side? Her life is most certainly going to be difficult going forward. And what of our train driver? Does Amtrak offer the needed support for what he and the rest of the staff may’ve observed? Too many questions that deserve answers — and further investigation. I still believe that train travel is the only way to really see into America’s collective soul — and today, with so many world events shaking, it is worth a few moments of respite and introspective concentration to really understand how one victim, on one rail line, is so representative of all that ails America.

 

Headed North

 

Blurry yellow buttercups, blue-green grass of early fall against white painted fence rails — all a blur as #96 picks up speed on its path north. Out of the South. A short pit-stop in Ashland, Hanover County, then our screech metal hubs begin their halting glide again. Antebellum white columns dot the county landscape; grand porches, slightly lowing swings, the occasional mare and rusty oil tanks. I know the stops by-heart on this run: Ashland, Fredericksburg, Quantico, Alexandria, DC for an engine change, New Carollton, BWI, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia — and then the City. The rail line out of the South is where past meets present — this week, no exception — the rumble of the diesel engine sways this line; the change-over to an electric engine in DC, symbolic. Sculptured lawns of Richmond give-way as a train saunters north through the Kudzu versus Virginia Creeper vine battles — a vain attempt on both parts to overtake or stake claim — which will win? Rail unites while it divides, bringing life and death together — human, nature, community, beauty. Our hopes rest on the rails — and maybe it delivers what we yearn for it to do — connect the disparity that is everyday life. Today #96 is ahead of schedule — but we must wait for our spot on the DC dock; what we gained on our trek thus far, we now lose to other forces. Tomorrow, without doubt, #85 headed south will surely be an hour late. For now, dirty windows offer a blurred moment — to study, to gaze, to float.