Friday, September 19, 2014

The hidden link between Rail Safety Week, Lord Byron

     Metra tries not to kill its customers.
The actual fine, $250, is half the posted fine. 
     It really does. Say what you will about our commuter rail service: its jaw-dropping top-level mismanagement, creaky equipment and seasonal surprise at finding itself once again in a cold climate. But when it comes to sparing the hectic, harried, charmless lives of the commuters who travel its length, Metra is outstanding.
      If a train is in the station, say going north, and another is going south, the northbound train will linger in the station, deliberately, to the puzzlement of passengers, until the southbound train arrives in the station.
     Why? Because the engineers know, if they were to pull out of the station when another train was about to arrive, passengers who disembarked would surge across the tracks and be killed by the incoming train.
     Considerate of Metra to spare them, I’ve always felt, even though they are not helping me, personally, since I am the one person, alone it seems, among the 150,000 who take Metra every day, who does not wait between the lowered gate and the train, in a runner’s crouch, eyes fixed on the moving rear of the last car, timing my lunge forward so that I am out of the blocks when the train has not quite passed, accelerating as the stainless steel wall clears the space in front of me.
     Usually, invariably they’re fine. There is no incoming train, no Amtrak express thundering by from the other direction. In the 14 years I have been doing this, only a few times do the people surging ahead see another train coming, and half go forward, and half go back, some doing an uncertain little dance on the tracks before choosing.
     Then, this week, something different occurred. The train cleared, commuters surged forward, to confront a lone man on the other side, Northbrook Police Traffic Officer Chris Lacina, in the baseball cap and shades that give suburban officers that coveted SWAT look, his SUV parked nearby.
     Sadly, I couldn't see the expressions of concern on the faces of the herd hurrying away from me. A trio of men froze in front of the gate and conducted a nervous little impromptu conversation. The mass parted around Lacina like a river around a rock, until they realized he was not issuing tickets, just handing out white warning slips. Off the hook, they scurried away.
     This has never happened, in my memory. I sought explanation from Metra. "It's Illinois Rail Safety Week," said Michael Gillis, Metra's spokesman. "Metra is partnering with various suburban police departments for enforcement actions, to encourage safe behaviors around tracks and trains." The special week ends Saturday.
     When the gate lifted and it was safe to cross, I strolled over and asked for a flier. "WARNING: YOUR ACTIONS COULD HAVE JUST COST YOU A FINE OF $250.00 OR EVEN WORSE, YOUR LIFE." Lacina said he gave one ticket, the only one Northbrook issued this week, according to police Chief Chuck Wernick, whom I later asked a question that bothers me. If crossing around lowered gates is dangerous and illegal, yet hundreds do it daily at this spot, why not have officers there regularly?
     "Well," he said with a laugh, "I wish I had 500 policemen too. We don't have the staff to do it. This is a special detail. I only have so many people working, and with all the accidents we deal with, we're stretched thin."
     In other words, it's not really that important. Hmm. Maybe he's right. Maybe it's me. When I moved to Northbrook my boys were 3 and 4. I worried about them living a block from the tracks and vowed they would never see me being unsafe. I've seen parents drag their reluctant toddlers around lowered gates, and it's all I can do not to run after them and hiss, "Are you insane?!" But I don't want to be that guy, and maybe there's a Darwinian, thin-the-herd aspect to it.
     There certainly is a psychological aspect. You can't stand behind a gate for 14 years, watching your neighbors rush away from you across busy rail tracks, despite it being both dangerous and illegal, and not reflect.
     Usually I savor the separation, musing on Lord Byron's "Child Harold's Pilgrimage:"

I have not loved the world, nor the world, me;
I have not flatter'd its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheeks to smiles,
Nor cried aloud/In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them but not of them.    

     But that's pompous, right? Maybe the error isn't theirs. Maybe it's mine, by holding back, being aloof, arrogant, separate. Maybe the thing to do is to blend in, utter a complacent "moo" and surge across the tracks with the mob. And if we all get flattened by a train some day, well, we gotta go eventually.


  1. Cogent comments for sure, but I question the "Usually, invariably" combination. I know "usually" by itself would imply that nothing untoward happens 9 out of 10 times, which would overstate the case for an Anna Karenina event while "invariably" by itself would rule it out. So I guess what you're saying is that once in a long while somebody gets crushed by a train, but that you've never seen it happen yourself. It works, I guess, and I can't think of an equally succinct and more accurate way of stating that, but maybe you can.

  2. "Usually, invariably" might indeed cause confusion of the sort described to persons addicted to close reading. Neil might have avoided the difficulty by saying simply "Almost always."

    Evoking some elegant lines from Lord Byron to accentuate a timeless point was not pompous, but apt. As was the Tolstoy reference. One need not be diffident about being well read, or reluctant to call on learning thus aquired in public discourse..

    Byron, a rock star in his time, can still be read for enlightenment and pleasure. I recall enjoying, against all expectations, having to read his long poem "Don Juan" in college. And particularly the moment in class when a clueless young lady asked the professor to explain what the eunuchs, which she pronounced 'Yunches," guarding the doors of the harem were.

    As for the Tolstoy, I revisited Anna Karenina recently to see if a book that had mpressed in my youth held up and found it a much more complicated tale than I remembered, one that doesn't end with Anna's unfortunate encounter with a train.

  3. I agree, it's awkward. "Almost always" would have been better.

  4. Column typo alert?: "The mass parted around Lacina like a rock around a rock,"

    I wonder, genuinely, if they had an officer issuing as many tickets as he could, every day for a month, if it would have any long-term effect. It's always interesting to note which laws are strictly enforced and which aren't. Are they worried about incurring the wrath of the citizens? Why isn't this seen as a ripe source of revenue, the way the traffic-light cameras are? Those certainly incur the wrath of the citizens, after all. It doesn't seem to me that it would be that much different from a speed-trap on the highway, where loads of speeders make it by, but selected ones are "culled from the herd" and pulled over.

    1. Thanks, fixed (oddly, it was correct in the paper, wrong online. Somebody probably fixed it, but only in the paper version). I imagine if they even made the faintest stab at handing out tickets, it wouldn't be a source of revenue anymore, because people would stop doing it.


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