Thursday, February 22, 2024

Train accident

     A long, continuous train horn. Unbroken. Wehrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.... 
     "That's a person," I said to my wife.
     Meaning, the only reason an engineer lays on the horn like that is someone on the tracks.
     Suicide, most likely. At least I hoped it was. The only thing worse than jumping in front of a train, intentionally, is to be blundering along, earpods screwed in, chatting on your iPhone, look up and think, "Shit a train," and bam it's over.
     Besides, most are suicides. There is that subtle hint of the ringing bells and flashing lights and lowered gates to help even the most careless avoid accidents.
     I live one block from the Northbrook Metra station. Quite intentionally. When we bought this house, nearly a quarter century ago, I wanted to live by public transportation so I could go into work without driving. Driving sucks. At least city driving. If I need to drive north, to Wisconsin, or west, to Iowa, I'm all for that. Coffee, tunes, the semi-open road.
      We can see the tracks from our dining room window. 
     Of course we thought about the noise. Those train horns. The clanging bells. And, such as Monday night, the ambulance and fire trucks that quickly arrived on the scene. I gazed uneasily out the living room window at the strobing lights. Some poor person...
     We were smart. Before we bought the house, we sat in what would be the master bedroom and waited. A train came by — a sort of gentle whoosh. We decided that we could live with that. Then we moved in, and the first freight came by, rattling the century-old windows in their dry frames. You get used to it.
     I'd taken the train downtown Monday to have lunch with a reader and his wife who bought the experience at a charity auction. They live in Kenosha. I told them, rather than go all the way into the city, we could meet at Prairie Grass —run by Sarah Stegner, the former chef of the Ritz Carlton dining room. I tried to tempt them with pie. Door County Sour Cherry. Coconut Creme. Pumpkin.
     But they wanted the full Chicago experience. So I suggested Harry Caray's on Kinzie, my go-to restaurant showing off the city. That lovely little Dutch revival building that somehow survived the ravages of time. The walls, a museum of memorabilia. It doesn't hurt that there is a photo of my younger son, on the mound at Wrigley Field, throwing out the first pitch at the Cubs/Sox game on the 3rd of July. A frozen rope to the catcher.
     Why would anyone jump in front of a train? I know the answer. Despair and sorrow and sadness and hopelessness and mental illness and addiction. Lost romance, lost job, lost hope, just plain lost. A permanent solution to a temporary problem.
     The devastated loved ones of those who perish under the train often put little white crosses and plastic flowers on the spot where the death occurred, and Metra leaves them for a polite period, sometimes for a good long while, to bleach in the sun and become faded and pitious. One, just off the platform by a tree, lingered for years, and I would eye it uneasily waiting for a train. Maybe even with a trace of annoyance — I'm sorry for your personal tragedy, but it's sobering enough to be going to a depopulated downtown to attend some meeting you could as easily conduct on Zoom or never at all. Must I consider your tragedy too? A petty thought, but you have to be who you are. It isn't very much to ask. Pause to remember this person was here.
     Monday night, the commotion lasted for a couple hours. Emergency trucks coming and going, other trains blasting their horns, loud and long, as they inched past what I assumed were recovery efforts. What I think of as, "picking someone up with a tweezers."
     Only it wasn't that. I checked the news the next day. Not a suicide — a 23-year old woman, running across the tracks. Taken to Evanston Hospital. Condition unknown.
     Running across the tracks. Jesus F. Christ. It mystifies me. Where are they going? Monday, when I returned from downtown, I got off the train, crossed Shermer, and tucked myself behind the crossing gate. Everyone else, getting off the train, stayed between the gate and the train, the better to surge across the tracks when the train pulls away. Timing their bolt from the blots so they're in motion even before the stainless steel wall of the train has removed itself. Which can be a problem if there is a train coming the other way. I've seen people start, then dance back as a train passes the other direction.
     A cautious move, on my part, to wait behind the gate. Habit. When we moved here, the boys were 3 and 4, and I realized the best way to inculcate train safety in them is to do it myself. It's very hard to be hit by a train if remain behind the gate until it raises up.
     This is not to criticize the young lady, whom I hope is alright. Maybe she was just grazed. That's unlikely. Usually, you get hit by a train, you know it. Maybe she'll reach out when she gets out of the hospital, and can tell us where she was going in such a hurry. Though I wouldn't expect that. It's got to be embarrassing, to be so careless. It's got to add insult to injury.



    Whatever happened to Stop. Look. Listen?

    This story bothered me for days

  2. As I wrote last week, I witnessed a Metracide. Yes, there are so many, it even has its own name now.
    Several years ago, Metra released the video of a woman crossing at the Zion station that was killed, along with her child. She too was running across to catch a train, but Metra did cut off the video just before she & her child was actually hit & killed. Metra has cameras recording in all locomotives & cab cars, I really wish they would release the entire thing, but even more importantly, show what the bodies look like after a train slices them up. Maybe that would stop a few of these desperate people.
    But then, a few years ago, a few New Trier girls trespassed onto the CTA track in Wilmette, which are 600 volts in that exposed third rail & one missed her step & was electrocuted. That's, even though there are gates that close when there's no trains making the grade crossings there & even have large pieces of lumber set at a 45 degree angle to make getting onto the track very difficult.
    So I guess we just can't cure stupidity or teenage dares!

  3. Trains are big, loud, can’t stop, can’t move out of your way. Imagine what it must be like for the train engineer.

  4. My dad was an engineer on the old Rock Island, which became a part of Metra. His routes included a Chicago to Peoria run and later, Chicago to Joliet. I remember on at least two occasions him coming home and telling us he had hit someone. Suicides no doubt. He said there was no way to stop the train without derailing and possibly killing and injuring many more people. Back then, there was no time off given or mental health services offered to the crew. I’m sure there is now.. He was back at work the next day and never spoke of the incidents again.. What this must do to these engineers, even though they know there was nothing they could have done to prevent it from happening.

  5. Your comment: "A permanent solution to a temporary problem." Is very thoughtless. As someone who has battled persistent depression for 30+ years, it isn't.

    1. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide please dial 988.
      There is help available for this very serious problem.

  6. My husband's aunt was in her old boat of a Caddy, and blew through a crossing and was hit by a train. She was maybe 5'- and the collision knocked her into the back seat. She didn't get a scratch. A double miracle. An accident where not wearing a seat belt did save her life (used as a drop dead argument by never belters in the family) and surviving a collision with a train. The latter was viewed as a blessing from the almighty. No luck here!

    1. I’m glad that situation worked out in her favor but by no means does it make it a good argument for not wearing a seatbelt; wear a seatbelt, and don’t race trains.

  7. The old North Shore interurban line was less than a mile from the house where I grew up. Couldn't see it, but could hear it whistle for street crossings, and on calm nights, you could even hear the wheels hitting the rail joints (that clickety-clack sound) and the clanging bells at the crossing gates. Heard those sounds for nine years, until the line shut down in 1963.

    The North Shore Line ran from the Loop to Milwaukee, and it was a high-speed interurban. It traveled FAST. Maybe, back in the day, people just respected the trains more, and gates and lights and bells and whistles. I never remember any accidents. No pedestrians got chewed up, and no cars or trucks were pulverized.

    The following year, 1964, the CTA's Skokie Swift began running on the same tracks. I made four round trips on Opening Day, in April. The following December, I was a senior in high school, and it was SAT time, on a Saturday, the day after a big snowstorm that gave us our school's first snow day ever.

    The test went on as scheduled. Driving was difficult, at best. One of my classmates who lived near school was late for the test. He took an illegal footpath, a shortcut across the tracks, just south of Oakton.

    The sound of the train was probably muffled by the deep snow cover. The train hit him and sent him flying. But it must have been only a glancing blow, because the high-speed "L" car didn't pass over him. He landed in the snowdrifts, which may have saved his life.

    Of course, my classmate missed the SATs, and was hospitalized with head injuries, and also missed about three months of classes. No permanent damage to his cabeza, either. HIs skull and his brain were okay. He survived being struck by a fast train, and somehow escaped intact. Most people in his situation end up as a basket of body parts.

  8. I often wonder about the engineer and how he feels after his train hits someone. How do you live after you’ve had a front row seat to someone’s death.

    1. I can help there:

  9. I really envy the location of your home. Something is reassuring and permanent about trains. As a daily commuter, did you notice any difference when METRA took over the trains from the C&NW?

    1. First of all, Neil lives by the Milwaukee Road North line, not the C&NW.
      But I do live by the C&NW & the difference is that the Northwestern ran like clockwork, always on time, as I could set my watch to it. Metra, outbound from Downtown is usually excellent, but inbound can be a crap shoot, usually about five minutes late for almost all trains except the first two in the morning & the ones after 8PM.

    2. Sorry, I got my Northbrook and Glencoe mixed up.
      I'm a West line guy all the way to Clinton, Iowa.

    3. Oh, yeah, C & NW's Kate Shelley 400, from Clinton to Chicago. Named for a young woman who flagged down a train at a collapsed Iowa bridge in 1881. Used to catch that train in DeKalb and ride it into the city, and then transfer to the North Line and get off at Main Street in Evanston, where my mother would pick me up. I was quite peeved when that train was discontinued in 1971. Metra service ends now ends at Elburn, but that is 15 miles short of DeKalb.

  10. They should bill her.

  11. One point that I have not seen mentioned is that the locomotive is always on the "outer" end of the train relative to Chicago, so inbound trains are pushed to the city; outbound trains are pulled. Thus an approaching outbound train, with the engine on the head end, is louder than an inbound one with the engine on the far end. If a victim is not actually looking to be hit by the train, they're more likely to be surprised by a quiet inbound train than a noisy outbound.

    My now-retired-to-Arkansas Metra engineer friend was actually on vacation the day our train ran over Phil Pagano, so the engineer in the cab car that day, behind the driver's door just a few seats ahead of me in the lead car, was a young guy filling in for him. That substitute operator was clearly stunned by the whole experience; I don't know whether that was his first suicide. My engineer friend told me later that he himself had experienced maybe... fourteen?... suicides over the years. He had sort of lost count, and probably preferred it that way.

  12. On Cumberland Av. in Franklin Park there is a cemetery whose south fence line runs alongside a railroad track. For many years the cemetery has had a roadside sign just before cars reach the track that says: "Drive carefully. We can wait."

  13. I've always lived near railroad tracks. As a kid across the alley from the huge yard at grand and central, now gone.
    Currently at 71st and Woodlawn
    Sandwiched between a few lines.

    About to buy a three flat near the lake st el.
    Will probably die there. Not as a suicide just old

  14. I grew up on 99th Street in Washington Heights, between two sets of rails, one RI the other freight. The noise of the trains was like no noise at all, just like cars going by or birds chirping. It was there and part of life. As a police officer I responded to two accidents, both cars hit by trains. One fatal, one not. Trust me, it's ugly. We also lost three officers to trains, two on the same night, walking in a train yard looking for a bad guy. Eduardo Marmolejo, Conrad Gary and Benjamin Perez. Serving and protecting.

  15. Always glad to read this column, even if the stories are sometimes sad

    I used to work in the RR industry, technical side. One of my first lab chores was to section a wheel. 700 pounds of steel. A whole train? Respect.

    And I live near small scale freight tracks here in Des Moines. Live to explain the long long short long whistle at each crossing to my neighbors.

  16. John Prine's song "Bruised Orange" describes a young altar boy hit by a commuter train while walking to the church. Prine was on his way to shovel snow, so that may have increased the danger to the youngster who could have still been half asleep or daydreaming. Another problem with the commuter lines is the strict schedules and hour long intervals between trains. If you have an important interview or need to be at the exchange before the opening, missing your train can be more than an inconvenience. Especially when you are on the wrong side when the train is approaching the platform. Perhaps you are meeting friends at Chicago Stadium to see the Russian hockey team play the Blackhawks and they have your ticket! Add to that, congestion around the Arlington Heights station due to the multiple trains at the evening rush. Now you must sprint through the parking places and detraining crowds before the doors close. Later, the friend who dropped you off remarks that he'd never seen you run that fast. When faced with similar dilemmas people make bad decisions and don't see that second train moving in the other direction.


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