Norfolk Southern Hates Your Kids
The Norfolk Southern derailment in spring 2004 or 2005 was the first piece of breaking news I ever covered. I’d just started as a freelancer for the Laure Star, covering the Delmar Board of Education for $25 a story with or without photo. If I successfully pitched features based on the information I heard at the meetings—a scholarship winner profile or Little Miss something-or-other—I could make $75 in a good month, but I wasn’t pitching news, per se. Delmar isn’t a news-heavy beat.
As I came around the corner near my house, I saw the train hunched over the tracks and blocking the intersection. I rushed home, grabbed my palm-sized digital camera, and headed back to the scene.
There were no police, no EMS at all, not even the ancient, retired, neon-green jacketed “fire police” whose only joy in life is telling people the road is closed and they’ll have to turn around. It was strange. I was in my mid-30s, old enough to realize that I couldn’t have been the one who discovered it.
Still, there were photos to take and facts to run down. I felt even more like a reporter than I did when asking clarifying questions at board meetings. After speaking with the police, I ran down the public information officer for Norfolk Southern, the company that owned the train. I cannot remember his name, but I recall the conversation because our exchange shocked and outraged me and continues to until this day.
After introducing myself and explaining what was happening, I asked whether there was any further danger.
The PIO sounded offended by the stupidity of my question, of course there was further danger.
“We’re about 12 years behind in our rail replacement program,” he said. He went on to explain that they didn’t have the money to fix every track that needed repairing, so they focused on those that were failing.
It was just normal. A non-story.
Asked whether this derailment would move the Delmar line up in the queue, his tone suggested he only now had realized he was speaking with a drooling moron who understood nothing about the train business.
“This wasn’t a catastrophic failure,” he said. “This was just a derailment.”
I’ve come to understand that’s PIO-speak for, “nobody’s dead, why are we even still having this discussion?”
Of course, it isn’t that people haven’t died in Delmar because of Norfolk Southern’s bottom line. A train kills someone at an unguarded Delmar crossing every few years. If you think replacing rotting tracks is expensive, imagine what crossing gates cost.
It is easier to be hit by a slow-moving train than you would believe. The grain trains that originate in Delmar don’t come barreling through. Since there’s a nearby train yard engines move very slowly when they’re not parked. It’s shocking how similar a slow-moving train is to an immobile one, especially when they’re parked at the crossings.
Once, after picking my kids up from school in Salisbury, I got to the crossing, stopped, looked left at the approaching engine, looked right at an empty track, and started across. The movement hadn’t registered. After being fooled by a stationary train a few times, it was easy to stop noticing them. As I pulled into its path, a trainman perched on the front of the engine shouted, “Hey!”
Thank god we had the car windows rolled down because blowing the horn at unprotected crossings is optional.
“Norfolk Southern” isn’t on the trains here anymore. At some point, Carload Express purchased the line. I can’t remember if they replaced the tracks as a condition of the sale, but it happened several years ago. Anyway, as far as I recall, a train hasn’t hit a carload of kids for some time, though a young woman died in 2018. If you read the story, you’ll see the police said it was clearly her fault for being “unrestrained.” A kid died because there was no railroad gate and the story was about the victim not wearing a seatbelt. God Bless the USA.
What I remember about the incident was how long and loud the train horns seemed following the accident. I wondered whether the victim’s parents were in earshot when the trainmen started exagerating how long they blew the whistle.
Over the last 30 years living by the train tracks, there has emerged a pattern. In the months after a train-related death, engines blow their horns loud and long, sometimes for the entire crossing.
It seems to go back and forth, based on engineer enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s a super-long whistle, sometimes a few little toots. So far this morning, it seems as if the engineer is from the short-burst school of public safety.
The thing is, no amount of death will cause the town to act or companies like Norfolk Southern to reform. Unless we get lucky and a train kills someone important’s child, Delmar will never have gates across tracks as they do in civilized parts of the country, Salisbury, for instance.
I wonder whether anyone important’s kid died in Ohio. I wonder if Norfolk Southern ever got less than 12 years behind on its maintenance program. Mostly, though, I wonder who has to die before anyone holds lax local government accountable.
Norfolk Southern will write a check, or it will pay off its execs and go bankrupt, but it won’t change because it doesn’t have to.
All the “small business” men in charge of the towns through which trains run on rotted trails past semi-guarded crossings understand how difficult it is to maintain margins, but few know how it feels to bury a child. Until you do the latter, there’s nothing more important than the former.
Sorry for being so bleak. This has been percolating for a while. We can rail against evil corporations all we want. Hell, it’s one of my favorite hobbies. But the fact is, we don’t make our local governments do anything more difficult than show up at ribbon cuttings.
The Town of Delmar spent a decade hoping that it never got a catastrophic failure and was happy to hope, since action takes work. When kids get killed, they’re content to explain that there are no regulations requiring gates because of low traffic volume, as if they do not know who makes regulations or why. How much different do you think it was in Ohio? How much different do you think it is wherever you live?
Keep the Faith,
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you for subscribing and reading. It means the world to me. I want to take a second and shout out my first paid subscriber (they know who they are).
I didn’t have paid subscriptions turned on for my account but this person signed up anyway and as a result, I now have a paid subscription program. That this person both enjoyed my writing enough and had sufficient disposable income to provide some financial support was humbling and inspiring. If you have the inclination and funds to do the same, that would be awesome. Either way, I’ll keep trying to be my chipper old self week in and out.
Orgone is coming back in a bit way, I’ll let you know how next time.
Great piece, Tony! A somber morning read, but defiantly well written.
Good article. Isn’t to say rail safety is adaquate in the US, but some of your facts could be checked. Send me an email if interested tmackay(at)mdot.maryland.gov. My wife grew up in Delmar with your daughter. Best Regards,