Thursday, March 3, 2016

Blood on the tracks

    When I first moved to the suburbs, in 2000, I was fascinated by Metra, and did a number of columns on the rail system, such as this one, where I rode in with the engineer and talked about the toll pedestrian deaths take on Metra employees. There have been two this week on the northern lines, which seem like a lot. I also sat down with a Metra honcho to talk about odd questions I had about the rail service. Fans of irony will note that the official fielding my questions was no other than Phil Pagano, who nine years later would step in front of a Metra train himself, ending the complex hash he had made of his life. It was not only tragic and senseless, but an unfathomable insult to everyone who worked at Metra, because Pagano, of all people, must have known the impact such deaths have.

     'We're late," said John Appel, the engineer driving a 3200-horsepower Metra engine toward the city at 70 miles per hour.
      That we were. But just seven minutes late. Only railroads care about being seven minutes late. That's on time everywhere else. Heck, seven minutes late at O'Hare Airport is early.
     I was riding with Appel, in the control car of the 8:17 a.m. Milwaukee line from Northbrook. The engine was in the back, and we were in a little cab area tucked into the top of the foremost passenger car.
     My ride was something of a fluke. Ever since I began the commute in the city, I've been noticing what I called "Metra Mysteries," odd aspects of commuting that I couldn't quite explain. What are those piles of sand doing on the tracks? Why do the switches burn bright blue in winter? I had guesses but didn't really know for certain.
     I approached Metra, and they sat me down with Phil Pagano, the executive director. Pagano answered my questions -- we'll get to them in a minute -- then, in discussing the various ways frantic commuters risk death to avoid being late for work, said I should really ride with an engineer to see the Auto Thrill Show for myself. He wasn't kidding.
     "Right around the gates!" said Appel, pointing to a woman zipping her car across the tracks, maybe five seconds ahead of the train. He said he's had commuters cling to the outside of the train as it pulls out. One unfortunate woman attempted to get from one side of the train to the other by crawling under. The train pulled away, maiming her.
     "It's unbelievable what they'll do," said Appel. "So many horror stories. We all have foolish moments, but here it can cost you your life."
     Appel doesn't want to talk about the suicides, the people who walk to meet the oncoming trains. Metra gives you three days off, mandatory, when that happens, and offers the services of a counselor.
     "It's terrible," said Appel, who called his job "12 hours of boredom interspersed with three or four 10-second intervals of sheer terror."
      He would, however, talk about the time a semi-trailer carrying beer decided to back onto the tracks just as the train was racing toward it at 70 miles an hour. It was, needless to say, memorable.
     "The 18-wheeler wrapped itself around the engine," said Appel. "You never forget that sort of thing."
     Appel was suitably businesslike in discussing his profession. There is a pleasing sense of dignity, of seriousness of purpose and respect for the customer that has lingered in railroad employees while fading nearly everywhere else. I loved that, despite the fact that I was riding with the engineer, the conductor nevertheless insisted on punching my ticket. Otherwise, it would be stealing from the railroad.
     Before we run out of space, on to the Metra Mysteries.
     Q. Just before the train departs, the lights go out for a minute or so -- I think of it as powering up the atomic core. What's happening?
     A. "They're unplugging the train from standby electrical power," said Pagano. They have to do this before they power up the diesel; otherwise the 500 kilowatts produced by the engine's generator -- enough to power a block of suburban homes -- would "fry the system."
     Q. So what's with the piles of sand on the tracks? There can't be that many ill passengers wretching from the platform.
     A. "A traditional braking mechanism," said Pagano. Basically, the engines have reservoirs of sand which, if thetracks are slick or they're going a bit too fast, is dumped over the wheels to give them traction.
     Q. What about the burning switches out in the yard in winter, obviously to keep them from freezing; isn't that kind of low-tech?
      A. "These are techniques people learn through experience," said Pagano. "For a while, the industry went to hot air blowers, steam machines. Nothing worked like the gas switch heaters."
     Q. Anything that can be done about the cell phones? Can't users be forced to ride in special cars, isolated from the non-obnoxious riders?
      A. "We've come up with some creative posters," he said. "The biggest abusers of cell phones are lawyers. The things they talk about in public -- business and clients -- it's phenomenal." He said that experiments of confining them to special cell phone cars, where they can bother each other, have not worked. "They tried that on the East Coast, and the New Yorkers found the conductors have a lot more important things to do than monitor people's cell phone use."
      Q. I've noticed that a good number of my fellow riders start lining up to get off the train at Western Avenue. Are these the same people who bolt out of the Lyric Opera during the last aria? What's their rush?
      A. "It happens all over," said Pagano. "Every train, a small group of people want to beat the crowd. All you're doing is going to work."
      Q. I always notice all the coffee cups, ticket stubs and newspapers left behind by my fellow passengers. Don't they realize somebody has to clean up after them? Didn't their parents teach them anything?
      A. "The majority of people are conscientious," Pagano said. "There's no doubt probably a pretty significant group -- 30 or 40 percent -- who are, I wouldn't say slobs, but who leave their papers and soda cans behind."
      So now you know.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 20, 2001


  1. In two months, it will be six years since I witnessed a suicide by Metra, or as people have started calling them "Metracides".
    In fact, this last Monday was exactly six years that Pagano killed himself, just before Metra was going to fire him. The reason that I remember that is that the one I saw was exactly one week later, at Edgebrook.
    Pagano's suicide got so much news, that it appears to have set off an epidemic of Metracides, that just doesn't stop. While the majority of them are mentally ill, the one I saw was of an old man & maybe he had a terminal disease & thought this was an easy way to go.
    In addition, there must be some outdated Illinois law that requires the medical examiner or coroner to go to the scene & certify the person as dead. Otherwise, why do the trains have to sit for 90-120 minutes? This just gives these sad people even more publicity in death. I read that if someone is killed in a tunnel in NYC or NJ, they have the trains running in 15 minutes & they have far, far suicides there, they even have far less grade crossing deaths there, than here.
    And BTW, that afternoon was good for 2-3 weeks of nightmares & I still wonder if some fool will do it again in front of me. About a year later, I was waiting for a train one morning, saw it maybe a mile away, heard a single blast from the whistle & it stopped. I knew exactly what had happened & a few minutes later heard sirens, as someone had wrongly directed the fire department to the station & not the correct location. That person had to climb a 20 foot embankment to do themselves in.
    I've gotten to the point where I don't give a shit about the suicide, just the poor engineer who has to witness something he can't do a damn thing to stop!

  2. Oooooh! Neil made a mistake, Bernie knows the right answer, he waves hand frantically. Neil sighs, okay Bernie what do you know. All the cars on the train have pneumatic brakes, when pressure on the brake system is reduced, braking is gradually applied to all the wheels of the train. If the track is wet or greasy when starting the train, sand is discharged onto the locomotive wheels only, to assist in gaining initial motion. Once the train starts moving, sand is no longer needed, thus leaving e pile of sand where the locomotive started moving. Oh yes, the mistake Neil made was asking Phil Pagano instead of John Appel the engineer who would know the correct answer.

  3. As to the cell phone dilemma: I'm fervently praying that someone somewhere somehow will invent a "cone of silence," so that cell phone users can shout, swear, incriminate themselves, and expectorate without letting all of us within earshot in our their secrets. Though I suppose we could all wear noise-cancelling earphones, which Metra and the CTA could sell or rent to their riders. No, the "cone of silence" is more practical.


    1. All Metra & CTA have to do is replace the windows with ones with metal mesh in them & turn all the cars & buses into Faraday Cages.
      No one will have any cell reception after that!

  4. Interesting that the book called the best novel ever written by no less than William Faulkner features two deaths by train, including that of the title character. I reread "Anna Karenina," after a number of years and found I had misremembered that the story goes on for a considerable length beyond Anna's grisly demise, largely about the "happy family" alluded to in the famous opening sentence; Tolstoy evidently saying that other lives beyond those marked by tragedy deserve attention.

    Tom Evans


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