Monday, August 12, 2013

Past Deadline: United by Rail

Here is Past Deadline, published in The Perth Courier on July 18/13.
United by rail
I hear the train horns now.
I grew up here, just a couple of blocks from the tracks. It was close enough to know when a particularly heavy freight was going through because it rattled the windows.
My parents and Nan could tell by the sound of the horn which way the wind was blowing and whether a storm was coming. I never got the knack of the weather prediction, but if the sound drowns out the TV I know it’s a north wind.
We could also tell when certain engineers were on duty. One guy who tended to really lay on the horn, especially when there were letters to the editor complaining about the noise of the trains.
Still, for the most part, I haven’t really “heard” the trains for years. I sleep through them. The kids sleep through them. They have just been part of the normal sounds of life in Perth.
Since July 6, though, I’ve started hearing them. It’s probably a good thing.
July 6 was the date of the horrifying train derailment and explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that killed about 50 people and destroyed part of the town. That night no one heard the runaway train coming until it was too late to stop it.
Since the crash there have been stories and interviews locally about how Perth is prepared to handle such an emergency. After all, the freights that pass through here can measure 2 kilometers in length, which is enough to block three or four crossings in town, depending on where a train stops.
Yes, we have contingencies for blocked crossings. We know what to do if there is a derailment – who to call, who to evacuate, etc. Short of preventing the trains from passing through at all, we’re as ready as we can be.
Can anyone really be ready for something the scope of Lac-Mégantic? Probably not.
Dangerous materials are transported by rail. Take a look at the symbols on the tank cars next time you’re stopped at a crossing. You probably don’t want to know the types of things that are going through our town – past our schools, hospital, long-term care homes, through subdivisions. Or maybe you do want to know.
Whether you know what’s in there or not, the simple fact is a serious derailment would not be a good thing.
One night last week, when it was cool enough to throw open the windows, a couple of trains went through. As the horns blew I stopped what I was doing and listened.
I’ve always loved trains. When I was a rebellious teen working at Burger King, the tracks were directly behind the restaurant and I used to imagine hopping aboard a slow-moving westbound freight and riding the rails to the prairies. (What I would have done when I got there I’m not exactly sure.)
Anyway, for me, the sound of the train horn is all wrapped up in romantic visions of travel and Canadian history. It was the railway that brought much of Canada together, after all. As I listened that night to the train horn it still seemed as iconic as the call of the loon, and just as mournful.
Now it also sounds like danger.
That’s the whole point, I suppose. Train horns are a warning: “Clear the way! Big, heavy machine coming!”
It just seems even more poignant now, especially as you sit at a crossing and see the same type of black tank cars flying through town that crashed and exploded at Lac-Mégantic.
What is the answer? I don’t know, but my thoughts are with Lac-Mégantic every time I hear the trains.

No comments: