Train, train go away


By Al Vinikour  

I really like my internist a lot. I’ve been a patient of his ever since I moved to Michigan over 20 years ago. He knows what buttons to push and gets a big kick out of holding political discussions with me to the point where my blood is beginning to boil…and then says, “Well, it’s time to take your blood pressure.”

Ironically, I’ve been on high-blood pressure medicine ever since we started holding these discussions (he and I are in total agreement but he’s not as quick to heat up over things). He’ll always take my pressure again before I leave to see how high he was able get it over its normal numbers earlier in the session. (I guess it’s some doctor game. My cousin and my uncle are both doctors and they do the same thing.)

However, there’s one occurrence that makes my elevated blood pressure from political news seem like I’ve flat-li
ned – getting stuck by a train!! As I write this I can already feel my head start to throb. I am asking my editor to run this column anyway, even if it’s fragmented, because after the previous explanation you readers will know that my apartment in Hell was finally ready for occupancy.

When I was a kid living in Northwest Indiana I used to pray that my dad would get stopped by a train so I could count the cars, try to guess what was inside the dozens of box cars (besides hobos), marvel at some of the heavy equipment being moved by flat cars and imagine where all of it was eventually going. My knowledge of geography was not that great at the time so I figured they’d wind up all the way over to Michigan City – about 20 miles east. At the same time I also learned the proper pronunciation and context for the various “toilet words” my father uttered. These little talks he held with himself were quite educational for me and I’d go to school the next day and teach them to my fellow grade-schoolers.

Now that I’m older and have something of a hectic life I can make up phrases that would make my dad blush whenever I see those blinking red lights from the train tracks signaling the passing of a train. I live south of Detroit in an area similar to where I grew up, except instead of steel mills we have auto plants and other related industries
throughout the area. Consequently we have lots of train traffic and I’m not talking about speeding passenger trains. I’m talking about slow-moving freight trains that depending on what direction they’re headed, you’re either there for 5 minutes or as much as the better part of a half-hour.

Most states used to have a law that a train could not block a crossing for longer than 15 minutes without facing a fine. Most would do it anyway because the paltry sum the railroad would have to pay was not worth messing up their schedules and routines. Oh…but its okay to block ours!!!  There’s a major rail yard nearby and train traffic often blocks major crossings – sometimes the same train may block two…and at times, three (over a 1 ½ mile distance. I have actually seen ambulances that have had to go up to five miles out of their way to get an emergency patient to the hospital – located on the “other side of the tracks.” I wonder over the years how many poor people have died because of the extra time it took to get to the ER.

And as if to make the joy complete the incompetent governor we’ve had for the past eight years likes to think of herself as “industry’s friend” and has willy-nilly dropped the fine for trains blocking a crossing and had the language changed from “over 15 minutes” to “an unreasonable amount of time.” I can guarantee you, Cisco, that the chief legal counsel at the railroad views “unreasonable” as anything over three hours.”

These train don’t come through just during off-hours. Noooooooo. They’ll block the major crossings during morning and evening rush hours, evenings, late-night and all hours in between. I still like seeing trains but not when I’ve got a couple of cups of Dunkin’ Donut coffee and a bag full of McDonald’s hamburgers that I had to go out and hunt for my wife and me. Sometimes I could start thawing a frozen Butter Ball turkey during the lengthy delays I’ve had watching the freight car count exceed 100. At the busiest major area road the state was going to build an underpass to avoid the constant train traffic that delays everybody so often. But thanks to the economy, that’s been put on hold until such times as the “Cows come home to roost” which is, I believe, the wording on the motion to table the construction project.

Here’s a solution that I’ve presented to the little-known lobbying group called Stop Halting for Irritating Trains; re-impose the 15-minute rule but make the fines so noticeable that Stevie Wonder would bitch. Have every intersection monitored by cameras. Every month a bill should be presented to the treasurer of the railroad with a 10-day grace period. If the railroad hasn’t paid on time, out-of-work stevedores from Toledo and people who work in the waste disposal business in downtown Detroit should be sent to the railroad offices and personally work out a payment plan…due that day!

In mid-November every year, just prior to Thanksgiving, the total amount of revenue collected from the railroads in fines should be divided up among every licensed driver in the state and a check written to partially cover the inconvenience and loss of quality life time while sitting in a car, shooting coal cars with your imaginary bazooka. Also, the gas money spent keeping the car running to keep it warm in winter and cool in the summer.

This could result in one of Weird Al Yankovic’s famous song parodies, “We’re not waitin’ for the railroad…all the live-long day.”