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Train Wreck Hits Home

November 20, 1999|JERRY HICKS

It almost seems as if nothing is safe. Not even my beloved trains.

Pictures of Thursday's Fullerton train crash--mangled steel and mammoth railroad cars belly up--were unnerving reminders that travel always means risk, even on the ground.

"We came cross-country by train because we thought it was safer than flying," said Pat Horn of Gloucester, Va. "I don't think I'll feel that way anymore."

She and her husband, Boyd, were being hurried onto a bus at the Santa Ana rail station, their San Diego-to-Los Angeles trek forced into detour by the crash.

The Rev. Jean McKinney of the St. Stephens Church of God & Christ in San Diego was rushing off a bus from Los Angeles and onto a new train to take her home after a convention week in Memphis, Tenn.

"We are grateful to be safe," she said. "What happened could easily have been our train."

Train tragedies have always hit close to home for me.

I grew up with trains. The main Baltimore & Ohio line, from the East Coast to points west past St. Louis, ran just 50 yards behind my bedroom window in my southern Indiana childhood. My father worked in the B&O railroad yards.

Train wrecks sent me to college. My father got double-time pay for years working on special round-the-clock crews for any train crashes between St. Louis and Cincinnati. He devoted every dime of it to my education.

But there was never any excitement over the financial blessing. Each crash brought the anxiety that it may have been a passenger train, with numerous deaths or injuries. And on the train wreck sites where I accompanied my mother to take my father food, we could only stare at the massive destruction all around us.

I spent Thursday morning at the Santa Ana and Fullerton rail stations, talking with train travelers. Santa Ana had become the emergency turn-around point for San Diego trains, and the starting point for those being brought in by vehicle from stops all the way to Los Angeles.

A theme emerged as they raced to where they were told to be. They were shocked, but happy that no one on the two colliding trains was killed. But most were consumed by worry that they'd be missing their connections with loved ones waiting for them, or appointments they had to keep.

Most were heading for another train.

For some, rail danger is an occupational hazard. Woody Lambirth, an Amtrak conductor, has been riding the tracks for 27 years. Never had a scrape. "Just been lucky," he said.

But Lambirth is not blase about the possibility of a crash; he just doesn't have time to think about it once the train is rolling.

"We get a lot of briefings on not taking any mental holidays," he said while his train was in temporary limbo in Santa Ana. "If any problems come up, we concentrate on our passengers' needs."

At the Fullerton station, my thoughts turned to last winter, when our family of four waited excitedly at that same station for a rail trip to Santa Fe, N.M. Now the only people waiting were Donna Marks, her young daughter and two friends. Marks was near tears as she explained that her mother, Sharon, was missing.

Sharon Marks was supposed to arrive there from San Diego.

But her train, of course, was forced to hold up at Santa Ana. Donna Marks was told her mother would be put in a taxi and sent to the Fullerton station. When she hadn't arrived an hour later, Amtrak officials in Fullerton determined that she must have been sent to the wrong city.

All eventually worked out, but it was a most anxious time for the woman's family.

It was a bad day all around for rail travel through Orange County. And all because somewhere in the system--just where is still under study--something broke down.

I was reminded of a train trip my family took, from California to Washington, along the North Pacific coastline. We were stuck at a standstill in Oregon farm country for four hours. A computer glitch at railroad control headquarters, we were told. And federal overseers refused to let the trains roll again until they were assured any track switches would be safe.

Most passengers grumbled mightily about the lengthy delay. But they hadn't seen all the train wrecks I had. I was content to wait.

Let's not roll till we get it right.

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