Track marks: These lines change lives
By Wesley Hottot
It is an atypically warm spring afternoon on Water Street downtown. Noise hums from the C&O Restaurant in front of the old C&O line, now part of the CSX train empire. For the moment, the tracks are completely silent, but East Water Street and the buses on Water Street are not.
A well-worn path leads across the tracks. Thanks to six or seven patches of black spray paint, a "no trespassing" rather invitingly warns: “CSX: ** ***PASSING.”
This isn’t the most elegant or even convenient footpath in Charlottesville, but the supposedly off-limits tracks running under the Belmont Bridge near the coal tower are a popular pedestrian thoroughfare. In just five minutes’ time, no fewer than 12 people cross one way or the other.
There’s a dress-down-Friday City employee with laptop and loafers on his way to the minivan he's parked next to the Beck-Cohen plumbing headquarters. There’s a thin, surprisingly well-kept raver kid, a lollypop hanging from the side of his mouth, on his way to loiter on the Mall. There's a young mother with her toddler stumbling behind. An athletic type in a circulation-pinching shirt jaunts by with a springy step.
After 15 minutes, the Cardinal quietly slides by, and no sooner does the last “US MAIL ONLY” car pass than two men, one with a puppy in a hurry to go on without him, cross the tracks toward me.
“You an artist or something?” asks the one with the straining dog.
“No, man, I’m writing an article about these tracks and this crossing.”
“Oh, you mean this illegal crossing,” says his friend, making quote marks in the air for emphasis.
Whether we’re faltering over rocks and rails to get to the Amphitheater, or just trying to sleep, or taking photos, or pretending to be in a Jim Jarmusch movie, or identifying with Johnny Cash lyrics, the train and these tracks are a part of our cityscape. It’s hard to imagine Charlottesville without the clanging, shrieking, sharply metallic sounds of those diesel-powered giants.
CSX runs roughly east and west– empty coal cars heading back to West Virginia from Tidewater’s ports constitute the bulk of its traffic.
Norfolk Southern, on the other hand, is more of a north and south line– hauling gargantuan loads of imported merchandise and sometimes even trash.
The cowbell approach of passenger trains in town, the intimidating horn blasts outside the city limits– these are sounds that help define our place here, in the middle of Virginia. Few of us actually ride the rails anymore, but as they run through our town, we look on with a sort of childish awe.
Eleanor Kaufman is no child, but she's got her own kind of awe for trains. An assistant professor of English at UVA and small-time train enthusiast, she lives not 15 feet off the tracks downtown and wouldn't have it any other way.
“I’ve been kind of fascinated with watching every train go by,” she says. “It’s this kind of weird romance. I actually can’t imagine living in another place in Charlottesville that’s not that close to the train tracks.”
Kaufman’s office in Bryan Hall, just off the hallowed Lawn, isn’t close enough to any rails for her to count boxcars and record serial numbers as she’d prefer to be doing (she’s convinced there’s some sort of pattern or schedule to their passing, though CSX has in no uncertain terms informed her to the contrary). At UVA she has assembled a few spiritual reminders of home: taped to a wall is a series of postcard-style rail photos. Over her desk, there's a rendering of the First Street crossing she lives by (drawn by none other than her landlady).
“Once or twice a month a conductor will wave to me," says Kaufman, "and that’s kind of cool.”
It was at that same First Street crossing last December that Kaufman witnessed a scholastic, modernist metaphor incarnate. It happened just outside her living room window.
As she was making her usual way across the apartment to watch an approaching train clank onward, she was caught midway by a screeching, horrible, iron-buckling din. What Kaufman saw was not just an engine and some railcars and a friendly wave, but an honest-to-goodness locomotive mess. An young woman– allegedly short on hearing and defensive driving skills– had tried to navigate the ungated crossing at precisely the wrong time.
Somehow having failed to see or hear the slow-moving train, the driver and her car were being pushed down the tracks like an oversized chip at the mercy of a grandly oversized croupier. The good news: the woman was unhurt, and Kaufman had acquired a priceless classroom example.
“I was at that point teaching this whole class on Freud. And with the question of Modernism, Freud’s model for trauma is the idea of the train accident and the person who walks away unscathed but then retrospectively starts developing these traumatic symptoms.”
Luckily that sort of thing doesn’t happen in Charlottesville too often. The Federal Railroad Administration reports only 14 incidents of contact between motorists or pedestrians and trains in Charlottesville in the last 26 years. By way of comparison, less densely populated Albemarle County had 32 collisions in the same period.
That’s not to say that nothing horrible has happened here. In 1985, a train struck a Charlottesville woman on her way to work early one October morning. As curtly reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “The body of Mary A. Walker, 37, of Charlottesville was discovered about 7:15 a.m., Sgt. F.D.R. Jackson said.”
Two years later, in February 1987, a 19-year-old UVA student died when she fell from the JPA Extended bridge over the Norfolk Southern tracks. She and her boyfriend, fascinated by trains, had spent many an evening leaning over the side of that very bridge, and were likely waiting for the Amtrak Crescent that roared in a short time after the girl's fall. Police later determined that Susan Bell had died from her fall and that the train simply thundered over her body. Her allegedly drunk boyfriend, however, dazed and frantic, suffered a life-changing head injury when he was struck as he attempted what he must have thought would be a rescue.
In the summer of that same year, a 14-year-old Albemarle County girl was killed instantly and her 16-year-old brother and 14-year-old stepsister injured as they lunged away from an approaching train on a trestle near the Woodbrook subdivision. The boy suffered serious injury when he jumped 60 feet to the riverbank below. After being struck in the legs, the surviving young girl, Claire Riley, dropped from the tracks, dangled perilously from the edge of the trestle, and heroically monkey-barred her way to safety.
In August 1990, a West Virginia man here looking for work, 41-year-old Billy Garlic, was cannoned off the tracks and down an embankment just north of Preston Avenue by an emergency-braking freight engine that hit him at 23 miles an hour. A day later, Garlic, who police said had been drinking before the accident, died in surgery.
In 1993, a popular UVA rowing coach, John Soule Preston, committed suicide by laying his head in front of a train on the CSX tracks near Carlton Road.
Perhaps the biggest accident in recent memory happened in Crozet in 1994. An elderly resident at the Windham Home for Adults fell from her walker and onto the tracks. When a Windham receptionist, Mary Pilkerton, dashed onto the rails in an attempt to carry the woman to safety, both were struck and killed instantly. Pilkerton, for her heroic action, was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal for bravery.
Just-graduated UVA student Seth Whitten knows railway dangers first hand. A native of Harrisonburg, Whitten lost his right foot seven years ago as he climbed off a slowly moving train while taking a short-cut home from school.
“I don’t really exactly remember what happened," says Whitten. "All I know is that I landed on my chest on the gravel beside the tracks and tried to stand up... it knocked the air out of me.”
Whitten’s foot had gotten stuck in the coupler of two boxcars just as they slammed together with the uneven momentum of an accelerating train. Even now, Whitten acknowledges that people will always cross tracks and insists that he isn’t afraid of trains and has nothing against them. He's just a lot more likely to heed that “No Trespassing” sign than you are, spray paint or no.
As horrifying as these accidents are, hundreds of people walk across Charlottesville tracks every day without incident. And, while it's considered trespassing to cross the tracks without permission, it's completely legal to dance your way across the tracks at an auto crossing.
"If it's a public crossing, we can't really prohibit it," says Danny Gilbert, the safety boss of Norfolk Southern, "but you still need to look and listen."
There’s always the possibility of a grand, devastating catastrophe with trains. Just as five Norfolk Southern cars (two of them carrying 34,000 gallons of propane each) derailed April 8 in Prince William County– closing Route 29 and prompting environmental officials to order the evacuation of adjoining residential areas– there is nothing to say that a HAZMAT train couldn’t go hurtling off the rails and come to a skidding, toxic-material-leaking stop in Belmont.
Does the City have plans to deal with that kind of train accident?
“Well, what we typically do in those cases is we pretty much evacuate the area,” says Charles Werner, Deputy Chief of the Charlottesville Fire Department. “We have certain materials on hand to do containment, but for larger scale things, we’d have to call the Department of Emergency Management.”
Such officials are about two hours away, Werner says, and you might imagine that's plenty of time for something godawful to seep into the air above town. The Prince William incident turned out safely– no propane leaked from the overturned cars, no fires erupted, no one was killed.
But further north– in Baltimore last July– a CSX freight train carrying a number of toxic agents derailed and caught fire in the center-city Howard Street tunnel. For days, a black plume wafted toxic materials from the tunnel into the wind; downtown Baltimore had to be evacuated. Could our fire department deal with such a scenario?
“There is a plan,” says Werner, “but we don’t necessarily have the resources.”
So perhaps pedestrian shortcuts are the least of our worries. Nevertheless, they were UVA's excuse two years ago for erecting a $125,000, 1,200-foot long iron fence along the back side of the Medical Center.
The “green monster,” as critics called it, was built to prevent human traffic between UVA and Fifeville as part of a contract with Norfolk Southern– both parties being concerned about the insurance risk posed by hospital employees and medical students schlepping back and forth between (and sometimes under) trains to get from home to work and back.
The monster sparked a heated debate over pedestrian right of way and track safety. It’s against the law in the first place, UVA officials argued. Then why didn’t you just build us a footbridge? employees retorted.
Despite the fervor with which some parties challenged the initial construction, things at the Medical Center appear to have died down over time.
“I walk 2.3 miles to work at UVA every day,” says Kevin Cox, UVA employee and one-time City Council candidate. “The detour created by the fence is so short that I have no sympathy for those who are complaining.”
These days not many people are.
Jules Levine, UVA’s associate vice president for Medical Systems, says there are no plans to build a footbridge or otherwise placate neighborhood residents.
“I haven’t heard a word about it in the longest time," says Levine. "We thought it was right then; we think it’s right now; and life goes on.”
But the fence highlights the way in which a community’s collective interest in track safety often conflicts with the annoyance of having narrow tracts of land smack in the middle of things declared “out of bounds.”
“If it’s shorter to walk across the tracks, people are going to do it,” says Seth Whitten. But if UVA employees living in Fifeville are still doing it, they’re not touting their infractions. Repeated attempts to contact the vocal personalities of the fence debate– including the student who vowed to build a fence-hopping device– were unanswered. I think if I were still hopping over that fence, I’d keep my mouth shut too.
Many of us prefer the lighter side of the tracks: the culture. Anyone who has ever owned a record player knows the clickety-clack of the Tennessee Two Step and songs like “Driver 8” by R.E.M– to say nothing of Elvis Presley. And thanks to former Charlottesvillian Dave Berman of the Silver Jews, there's even an alternative train song: “Albemarle Station.”
The power and potential of trains– Americana personified despite being a European invention– have perennially inspired the low down, the beat up, the guy with a raspy smoker’s voice and a guitar two strings short.
Brandy Savarese put together a whole rock show of songs about trains and life on the rails for this year’s WTJU Rock Marathon.
“We cannot remove the rock culture now from the rock culture of 10 years ago or 40 years ago, and especially not the rock culture of Elvis and true American music, which has everything to do with trains,” says Savarese, pointing in the general direction of the rail trestle that crosses the 14th Street/University Avenue intersection.
“Trains are very much my thing,” says Savarese, whose architectural history master's thesis detailed the impact of the Norfolk and Western Railway Company, now Norfolk Southern, on the Roanoke cityscape. Appropriately, the legendary nighttime train photographer, O. Winston Link, is soon to have a museum in his honor at an old depot in downtown Roanoke. [See sidebar.]
Trains helped shape the Charlottesville cityscape, too, as evident in the rows of worker cottages by the tracks down in the Woolen Mills district, the sleeping freight cars lined up underneath the Main Street bridge, and the deep dip in Main Street as it dives under the 14th Street bridge.
Countless rolls of black and white film have been spent on these scenes of something antiquated– but as powerfully metaphoric as the stars or snow-capped mountains. Just as engineers peer out at Corner coeds, kids from one to 92 seem to take note, turn, and wonder about trains.
The trains are often full of graffiti strategically sprayed onto their transcontinental canvas. One has to wonder if somewhere in a train yard in Tacoma, Washington, there’s a guy whose job it is to sandblast spray-painted proclamations of affection which originated at Belmont's underground music spot, the Pudhouse.
Part of the culture of the tracks is the notion of the “wrong side.” It’s a simple equation, really: train line comes to town; train line needs service industry to support it; lower income people move to town to support train operations; they live near their work. Meanwhile, the wealthy live as far away as possible from the noise and smell of it all– and soon haves and have-nots reside on “opposite sides” of the tracks.
But there are chinks in the theory. Many younger people now want to live near the tracks—to wit, Professor Kaufman, Brandy Savarese with her Woody Guthrie albums, gutter punks who live(d) in the coal tower and hop trains through town.
With the conversion of Charlottesville's rail yard into an office park in the early 1990s, rail’s “service industry” no longer exists. And as trains no longer burn coal and belch hot cinders, there's no dirt or shame in a railroad apartment. And so people who live near the tracks may very well work at Lexis Law Publishing or at a coffeeshop on the Mall.
And yet it doesn’t take any impressive grasp of demographics to notice that the South Street Brewery is a lot nicer than the subsidized community on the other side of the First Street crossing.
“The tracks do divide this town,” says Gabe Silverman. "I don’t think it was done intentionally. In fact, I’m sure it wasn’t done intentionally." Silverman is a Charlottesville über-developer and owner of the newly renovated Amtrak station.
Silverman isn’t one to venerate the past with regard to train tracks... or anything, for that matter. He has what at first comes off as a harebrained idea of what the rail lines (or more appropriately, the land that the rail lines happen to be on) could mean for the future of our city.
Silverman points to aerial photographs of Charlottesville’s downtown and university districts that he’s rather ceremoniously unrolled on the floor. The tracks very clearly surround, enclose, pretty much outline anything to do with tourism, any place where people scuttle in and out. Running with an idea that UVA had a few years back, Silverman is interested in how the tracks could be used for mass transportation to and from Monticello, UVA, downtown, the airport, and even DC.
But where UVA wanted the actual rail lines, Silverman is thinking about air rights– the unused and, to date, unusable– clear space over the tracks. He proposes (with overt tentativeness and qualification) a system of “aerial tramways”– giant high-speed ski lifts, sky gondolas, if you will– whisking people to and fro with so much ease and efficiency that it could change both business and tourism in Charlottesville as well as resolve whatever remaining socio-economic divisions surround the respective “sides” of the tracks.
“Here’s a great opportunity to make a morph on a system that we have in place and put it into the godforsaken, blighted areas of a town, force the issue. Force the fact that you put [a tramway] into some of the worst areas of a town," says Silverman, "and those areas are going to be really attractive to young couples and to other people who can get to work and on and on and on.”
A bonus: less need for cars and parking if people actually ride the new contraption. And regaining some municipal control over the tracks would be a victory over the freight companies’ monopoly on land they may have received under government subsidy over a century ago.
“Think of it this way," says Silverman. "Let’s say you’re renting an apartment, and you’re not allowed to go in part of it. That’s in effect what the rails have done. You can drive over it only if they say it’s okay; you’re not allowed to walk on it; you’re not allowed to build on it; you’re not allowed to do anything close to it. And they own prime property.”
Yeah, like the First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Eleventh Street crossings, where you can sit idling in your car for upwards of 20 minutes, a literal stone’s throw from where you’re going. Curiously, both swanky country clubs in this area– Farmington and Keswick– are bounded by rail lines. Whenever the train decides to come through, even the country clubbers must line up behind an impregnable moat.
Many developers run from any land flanking the tracks, although Hunter Craig has become something of a legend in local development circles for getting a private bridge built to take residents over the CSX tracks into Western Ridge, his Crozet-area subdivision. Trains chew up otherwise valuable property, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Unless the City decides to get creative, that is. In the same vein as Silverman’s “forget the past” stance, the national non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy works to transform abandoned rail lines into recreational spaces both historic and crucial in their own right. Many newcomers might be surprised to learn that as recently as 1990, CSX was asking regulators for permission to abandon its allegedly "redundant" line through Charlottesville and Crozet. (That was before it discovered that the mountainous pathway was perfect for moving empty coal cars back to West Virginia.)
Rails-to-Trails helps communities take control of abandoned lines and to maintain hiking and biking trails on what is, by necessity, some of the most underdeveloped (therefore most pristine) land around. They then record the new trails in a public database (www.railstotrails.org) and encourage nature lovers from around the country to come and enjoy the especially placid and nostalgic spaces. Where pedestrians were once warded off and fenced out, they now are invited to enjoy, to own, to share in a part of our national history and to catch a glimpse of what the landscape of our cities and towns once looked like.
Why not us? The minute freight companies stop or scale back their operations through Charlottesville– perhaps even before they decide to– the City should investigate taking some ownership of the tracks, providing some sort of outlet where pedestrians can actually enjoy walking near the trains, safely and without the threat of a $250 trespassing ticket.
I’ve been told there is a whole weird protocol for train conductors. Apparently while one guy drives, the other is on a kind of standby in case the driver gets tired or something terrible happens. So the second guy, the kind of off-duty one, sits there and reads Proust or Rorty or Harper’s or something.
It’s an encouraging notion since one of my friends is about to pack up for CSX’s “engineer basic training.” He’ll be clanging up and down over our railroad ties for the next year or so (they still hire people!), and it’s nice to think of him staring out the window at us and thinking hard as the long black train rolls on by. What is it about those things?
But that second guy isn’t getting paid to just sit there and get smart. Oh no. This spring there have been two fatal train accidents in the United States. A Virginia-bound Amtrak train derailed April 18 in Florida, killing six. Five days later, two people died when a freight train collided with a commuter train southeast of Los Angeles. The rails can be dangerous. And just as ships still sink and apartment buildings still burn down, we’d all do well to remember how much of a danger having trains in Charlottesville can be.
Like it, love it, or curse it all to Hell, the train will continue to run through Charlottesville every day. It will continue to hold you up on Second Street when you want to get to the Downtown Mall. It will continue to be a threat to you if you decide to try and slither around the gates. It will continue to amaze you. It will continue imperialistically to control some of our most valuable land. Still, we’re ancient cohabitants here in Central Virginia, Charlottesville and the tracks. Let’s try to get along.