Sunday, July 1, 2007

Riding the rails

Many stories have been written, glorifying riding the rails. They make it sound easy, hopping a freight. I thought I'd show those of you who don't live next to a railroad what it's really like.

This is what you see, trackside, right before you jump for that freight car.

This train isn't moving very fast. Maybe 20 miles an hour. It's struggling as it climbs the Berkshire hills in Western Massachusetts. There are two tracks on this segment. Westbound trains - the ones climbing the mountain - move slowly.

Eastbound trains - the ones coming downhill - move fast. We stand clear of them. They come down the mountain so fast here, that the wheels scream when they hit the corners, even though there's a machine putting grease on the rails.

At that speed, if they didn't grease the rails, the trains would end up five hundred feet down the embankment, in the woods. You can still see the sparks fly at dusk, and you can smell the brakes. But you're not here to catch an eastbound train. You're looking to jump a slow westbound, and that's plenty fast enough.

Notice how the back of the car is in sharp focus. That's because it's fifty feet away. The whole train is in sharp focus, when you're 200 feet from the tracks. It's moving slow, when you watch from back there.

Then you run for the train, and when you're two feet away, it looks like the right side of the photo. Blurred, and moving really fast. All of a sudden, you realize twenty miles per hour is a lot faster than you thought. That footrail is coming at you at twenty-nine feet per second. And you can see the shiny edge of wheel right below the footrail. That's where you end up if you slip. Or maybe part of you ends up there, and the other half crawls back from the tracks.

And it's not just the speed. It's loud, too. And it's rocking from side to side, and every now and then, there's a scrap of steel hanging off a car, waiting to snag you if you're slow or you're not watching. When you were a few hundred feet back, the train looked like a toy, one of the HO sets on your floor. Up close, it's huge. And loud. And fast.

The engines are a quarter-mile up the tracks by now. There's no one around. No one will know if you hop aboard, and the next stop's Selkirk Yard, outside Albany.

But no one will know if you miss, either, unless some hiker finds you.

It looked easy on television.

I don't ride freight cars anymore.

6 comments:

ORION said...

What's interesting about this is the analytical way you talk about something that is said offhandedly in literature.
"hopped a train"
It shows that research is more than just reading about something.
I see this all the time when someone talks about horses or sailing and they have just read about it and never done it.
Write what you know...

kristen said...

What Orion said is also what struck me about this post. It literally put me in the moment and pulled me right through to the end, even though hopping a freight train is not something I've ever considered doing. The only person who could have written this is someone who has been there, someone who has hopped a train or at least come very very close to trying.

That said, I'm glad you don't ride freight cars anymore.

John Elder Robison said...

Orion and Kristen, I hadn't thought of it that way, but I agree with you.

It troubles me when I read factual errors in books. Being a mechanical sort of guy, I see them all the time. "Flicking off the safety on his revolver" . . . revolvers do not have safeties to flick. Automatics have safeties.

I see that sort of thing all the time, and it frustrates me.

Holly Kennedy said...

Wow. I can't believe you used to do this. Gulp. And I immediately cringed thinking about my boys hitting their teenage years as they go off exploring!

Great post!

Michelle O'Neil said...

Great description! This is one adventure I'm happy "just to read about."

No train hopping for me.

Maybe I could write about the experience of reading about train hopping, because that's something I now can say I've done.

: )

CindaChima said...

My uncle lost his leg riding the rails in 1922 when he was 17 years old. He was always fascinating to me, because he had an artificial leg. When I was doing genealogy, I found court records relating to his injury. He sued the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad and was paid $300 for medical bills and to buy an artificial leg (he was trespassing, after all, the court pointed out).