Trouble with Trains

All of us remember train safety videos.

Whether we watched them in confusion as a child, or in horror as a teenager, train safety videos always said the same thing: stay away from trains.

The grisly results. The horror. The minuscule chance of survival. There was no winning a battle with a train.

Even as a child, I remember thinking the same thing, “Who would be stupid enough to challenge a train in the first place?”

Of course this was years before I began working in Houston’s East End. Years before I realized that, inTrain Stopped some places, trains are a part of life.

Houston is home to many destinations for many trains. Some of them are even quite dangerous, as this “explosive crude by rail” map from Forest Ethics shows.

All trains, dangerous or (relatively) safe, take time to stop. A 120 rail car travelling 55 miles per hour needs more than a mile to stop. (If that train is hauling 110 tons of coal per car, by the way, it could be carrying 13,200 tons of coal to be burned in Texas.)

Trains slow gradually. When they near their destinations, they move slower still. Slowed and stopped trains often leave crossings blocked for hours. Sometimes gate arms go down, but no train will come.

Idling trains also cause air quality impacts. Although moving freight by train is far more efficient than moving it by truck, trains are still powered by diesel engines that produce harmful air pollutants. And idling trains, like idling trucks, are needlessly wasting fuel and creating air pollution. Communities like Houston’s East End feel the air pollution impact of all of these diesel engines.

Not surprisingly, this problem happens more frequently in low income communities of color. My first firsthand experience with this environmental justice issue came when I began working for Air Alliance Houston in the East End.

Now, RR Crossing Gatewhere I work, Railroad Crossing gates are perpetually, unaccountably down. Either no train is in sight, or a train is obviously parked a great distance away. Nevertheless, the gate is down, and staying down.

Last week I photographed a train gate near my office one morning [at left] that I remembered as being down the night before.

I don’t know if the gate was down all night, but I did watch it throughout the day. By the time I got ready to leave at the end of the day, the gate was still down [below at right].

Notice it’s almost sunny. (Sure did enjoy the rain, though!)

Again, I don’t know for certain that this gate was down the entire time. Nor do I remember if a train ever did pass–you get immune to the sound and feel of the trains, though not to the health impacts–during that time. But I do know that it was pretty much down for no reason at all, all day. And I know that leaving RR Crossing signs down like that is a recipe for disaster.RR Crossing Clear Sky

If access to a community is restricted, people suffer. First responders must be able to travel freely. Communities must not be cut off from the outside world for hours at a time. Lives are at stake.

Which brings us back to the train videos.

Obviously, as a kid, I made the only sane decision after watching my first train safety video: I would never, ever, attempt to beat a train, jump on to a moving train, jump a train track, ride on a train, drive near a train, play with model trains, or ride in cars with people who weren’t equally serious about train safety.

Once I grew up and found myself on Houston’s East End, things changed.

The first RR Jumping Trucktime I saw someone jump a gate, I was a bit shocked. I did not follow suit, and though I ended up waiting a good while longer, my sense of order in the world was intact.

The next time, I saw a row of cars jumping the gates, one after another. No train was in sight. I looked both ways, and I followed them through.

Before I know it, I’m treating downed gates like four way stops, allowing the people opposite me their turn to jump the gates before I take mine.

This progression happens so naturally, I never notice it.

Until last Thursday.

Around one o’clock on that fateful day, I left my office heading southeast, across the tracks, to one of my favorite local lunch spots. After grabbing a delicious sandwich to go, I headed back in the opposite direction. Before I had finished my drive back (which was, admittedly, about a third of a mile, and before you protest, realize that heat and hunger were a factor) to work, I realized something with shock.

Not only had I jumped the gates, I had done so without even paying attention.

This gave me pause. It’s one thing to drive without paying attention to every little detail. Most of us are guilty of driving past our destination or even running a stop sign or two. Distracted driving happens.

But I had driven around a closed Railroad Crossing without even noticing. How could I have done that? Had that bit of distracted driving, coupled with my newly cavalier attitude, put me in danger? Was I almost a feature in some driver’s ed video?

No. The train was sitting still as ever, if it was even there. But the fact that I could just drive through a closed Railroad Crossing Gate without even a second though–or first thought, for that matter–made me realize something.

I don’t live in the East End. I see problems there, as in many places in Houston, but I don’t live them. My momentary lapse at an empty train crossing is sobering, but it’s nothing compared to the daily fear, uncertainty, and anxiety that comes with living next to hazards large and unknown.

To put people in proximity to such hazards, to ignore them and to expect them to get used to them, and then to turn a deaf ear when those people finally do complain, is to do only one thing to them: Devalue their lives.