About Grade Crossing “Accidents”.

The awful accident involving the Southwest Chief and a dump truck brought to my mind the five hours I spent in the head end of an Amtrak locomotive. I was working on the first edition of my All Aboard book and wanted to include a chapter describing the jobs of each of the on board crew members: dining car staff, the sleeping car attendant, the conductor and, of course, the engineer.

This was around 1993 and even back then, before 9/11, what they called a “head end ride” was a very rare privilege. To my delight, the powers-that-be said “yes” and arrangements were made for my great adventure to take place during my next long-distance ride, which was Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. My instructions were to leave my roomette in Milwaukee and walk up to the locomotive where Craig, a road foreman, would be waiting to be my guide for the duration of my cab ride.

(The additional person is there to serve as a visitor’s official host for the ride, the  goal being to minimize any distraction to the engineer. The reality was that Bob, the engineer, paid attention to our conversation and joined in from time to time.

There were two locomotives pulling our train that day—both F-40s—and I clearly remember how high up we were and what a great view we had. It was about two hours into my ride, after we had all relaxed and become friends, when I blurted out a really dumb question.

“You’ve got such a great view from up here. Acres and acres of freshly plowed farmland, so you can clearly see that there are no cars coming. Is it really necessary to blow that whistle for every grade crossing?”

The engineer gave me a look that said “This guy just doesn’t get it.”  But all he said was, “I blow the whistle every time. Every . . . single . . . time. No exceptions.”

Then, after an uncomfortable pause, the two of them started talking about another engineer who had been at the controls when a car full of teenagers had lost the race to a grade crossing. That engineer was unable to get back in the engine’s cab and, despite many hours of counseling, had finally given up and was seeking another line of work. 

“It’s important that I do everything possible to prevent an accident”, said Bob . . . “that means I was observing the speed limit  . . . that I was using the whistle . . . that I was braking as hard as I could. In other words that I was doing everything humanly possible to avoid the accident.”

Then, never taking his eyes off the track ahead,  Bob said “This train hitting a car at 79 miles-an-hour,” — he paused for a second, then finished the thought—“It would be like running over a mailbox with your family car.”

Point taken.