Waiting on the Train Gang

| March 03, 2006
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Trains are a fact of life for most Memphians. But, last October, for 42-year-old Darlene Lewis, they were a matter of life and death. It may seem belated to report her death now, but in recent weeks, members of the City Council have discussed a number of railroad issues, including quiet zones near residential neighborhoods and trains that remain stationary for long periods of time.

"I have sat on Chelsea with the train just sitting there for more than 30 minutes," council member Barbara Swearengen Holt said at a committee meeting in early February. "I called the police. I sat there thinking, surely this train is going to move soon."

A current city ordinance says stationary trains cannot block an intersection for more than five minutes, but at last week's transportation committee, city attorney Sara Hall said she wouldn't advise enforcing it.

"I don't disagree with the safety issues or the problems they present, but in all cases in the last 10 years, the ordinances have been struck down [in court]," she said. "I do not see a vehicle in which to regulate this area."

The courts have deemed that federal regulations regarding the rails preempt any local ordinances. Earlier last month, city engineer Wain Gaskins said that when the city gets a complaint about stationary trains, they notify the offending railroad, but the city has "no enforcement authority against them. We can just bring it to their attention."

Gaskins said the city used to receive more complaints. "We receive relatively few notifications, maybe because people have realized it doesn't do any good."

Having seen drivers do U-turns near intersections blocked by both moving and non-moving trains, I think people have also realized that finding an alternate route is always a good idea. But that's only realistic with other transportation.

"Someone was killed in District 4 when they tried to climb over a parked train," Councilman Dedrick Brittenum reminded the committee. "That's the danger."

According to October police reports, an eyewitness saw Lewis try to climb over the car coupling of a train stopped at Southern and Willett. The train began to move and Lewis lost her balance, falling backward between the cars.

Viola Batts is a relative who raised Lewis. She lives around the corner from a set of railroad tracks and says that whenever she or Lewis happened upon a train, they either waited or went around. As far as Batts knows, Lewis had never tried to climb over a train before.

We'll never know why Lewis decided to cross over the train that evening. It's a crazy thing to do, but what happens when you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks? Maybe she was tired or scared; maybe she just wanted to get home.

"Nobody should be climbing over trains," said Brittenum, "but people get tempted."

A few years ago, I went to a University of Memphis football game with a few friends. We parked on a side street near Humes and walked across Tobey Field to get to the Liberty Bowl. After the game, we walked back the same way, only to find the road blocked by a stationary train.

And we weren't alone. Tiger fans kept joining us until a crowd of about 50 had collected.

After 10 minutes or so, a few people started climbing over the couplings. Everyone looked at each other, as if to say, what do we think about this? Is it very smart or very stupid?

Our car was right there. A block away. The first climbers made it safely across and were on their way home. There was no way to know how long the train was going to sit at the intersection and no way to tell how many intersections it blocked. Climbing over the train was crazy, but just standing there, not knowing if it would ever move, seemed crazy too. We could be damned if we did, but we were dammed if we didn't.

Even if one were to channel the patience of Gandhi, there are times people just can't wait.

"In addition to being inconvenient," said city attorney Hall, "it is a safety issue if emergency vehicles can't cross the tracks."

The city attorney's office is trying to find alternate solutions, but Hall didn't sound optimistic. The Federal Railroad Association expects the rail industry to significantly increase in the next 20 years, and local entities will still have limited authority.

We have ordinances about noise pollution and loitering; it's too bad we can't apply those to train companies or train operators. Councilman E.C. Jones suggested citizens call their federal elected officials, and the committee discussed urging rail companies to move to an area south of town.

But without some latitude from the federal system, it just seems like we're being railroaded.

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