Of Trains and Tragedy

There’s been quite a bit of sadness and mourning going on in our little town.

Two train accidents have occurred in our immediate area in the past month.  One was probably a suicide, the other a tragedy involving two teenagers.

About four weeks ago, a woman reportedly sitting on the tracks a few blocks from here was killed when the train couldn’t stop in time.  And then there was last night.  Two students walking to a local dance crossed the train tracks as so many locals do without a second thought.  The engineer said he blew his horn repeatedly and applied the air brakes but was unable to stop before running over them.

I wish I knew something about the woman who was in such pain that she felt the need to end her life on the tracks.  Did a relationship go sour?  Were her children horrible to her?  Was she unemployed and in debt?  Was she homeless and alone?  Was she suffering from drug addiction or mental health problems or both?  Living here in the parsonage of a church, we are no strangers to such issues.  I woke up from a sound sleep the other day because a woman was sobbing loudly in our living room and Pastor Mom was attempting to comfort her.  Trying to remain inconspicuous to avoid further embarrassment to her, through her tears I heard bits and pieces about someone leaving her knowing she can’t pay the rent and someone else making up stories about her.  Problems likely not very different from those experienced by the woman who sat down on the tracks.

The newspapers and local authorities won’t identify the minors who were killed over here last night, but just about everyone in this area is on Facebook and Twitter so the word gets around.  They were both sixteen years old and in high school.  Just a typical teenage couple heading to a dance.  He was killed instantly.  The word on social media is that she survived only because he pushed her out of the direct path of the train.  Rumor is that one of the train’s wheels ran over her anyway and that she has lost her arm.

There are no words for this.  I didn’t know any of the people involved, but my heart goes out to their families.

So what is the answer?  Better access to mental health care for those who most need it and can least afford it?  Mandatory fences on the railroad’s right-of-way?

I had two close calls with trains in my younger days, one in a vehicle (that someone else was driving) and one on foot.  Many years have gone by since I lived in a place such as this where so many freight trains pass back and forth over multiple tracks at all hours of the day and night.  In the New York town in which I grew up, there were trains that passed through the center of town.  By the time I was in high school, however, the train no longer came through town and the tracks were abandoned.  More recently, we lived out in the desert on the Arizona/California border, where the tracks running through town were similarly abandoned.

Passenger trains are a thing of the past.  I’ve ridden Amtrak on several occasions, but they are constantly on the brink of bankruptcy and survive only due to government bailouts.  Freight trains seem, at least to me, like an anachronism that belongs to this country’s past.  With most goods transported by tractor trailer or air, I question whether freight trains still have a place in our modern economy.  The objection I hear is that certain goods can be effectively transported only in large rail cars.  I say that if we can save so many lives a year by eliminating freight trains, then paying higher prices for those goods seems to be a more than fair tradeoff.

At the very least, grade crossings should be outlawed.  Railroads wishing to have their tracks  pass through populated areas should be required to construct high trestle bridges for their trains to pass over.  As rail transportation is a matter of federal law in the United States, I would suggest that you write to your senator and congressperson to express your feelings on this issue.  If we continue to feel that there is nothing that can be done about it, then nothing ever will be done about it.

I am convinced that those who are hellbent on committing suicide are going to do so one way or the other.  But to have train tracks running through the middle of town so that it is inconvenient for kids to do anything other than walk over them to get from Point A to Point B is unconscionable.

Update, March 30: My niece and her teenaged friends tell me that the young couple on the tracks had made a suicide pact in a sad Romeo and Juliet parody that concerned parental disapproval of their interracial dating. My niece says that only the surviving girl knows the whole truth and that she’s likely to commit suicide before she talks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?

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