UPDATE (July 29): According to a new article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the derailment in northern Pennsylvania was caused by speeding down a steep grade — the sort of thing that could have been prevented through better policing.Â
The main east-west railroad line in the eastern United States, connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Chicago, runs past the bottom of our mountain. Our only access to the outside world is down a mile-and-a-half-long road to a public railroad crossing that serves nobody but us and our visitors, railroad employees, and occasional train photographers. On the other side of the tracks, a hundred yards of township road lead to a one-lane county bridge across the river to the highway beyond. Fisherman, teenagers swimming in the river, drug dealers, and people involved in, shall we say, other kinds of activities frowned upon by polite society, all use the township road and the small patch of woods between the tracks and the river.
The day before yesterday, my brother Steve had just gone out the gate and locked it behind him when a train came along. While he waited at the crossing, he decided to go check out a stand of vetch about fifty feet down along the tracks to see if there were any good beetles on it. Just as the first train was clearing the crossing, another train came thundering through in the other direction. He was still congratulating himself on his decision to make good use of his time when a railroad policeman pulled up.
“What’cha doin’, buddy?”
“Uh, I’m an insect collector. I just thought I’d check out these weeds while I waited for the crossing to clear. How did you know I was here?”
“We saw you in the satellite pictures. We’re on high alert, and we’re under orders to investigate anything that looks the least bit suspicious. Homeland Security and all.”
Steve explained who he was, and that we lived here.
“So that was you we saw walking into town along the tracks last Thursday?”
“No, that was my brother Dave.”
Steve asked if they bothered to interfere in any of the various shady activities that go on the other side of the tracks. No, but they were very aware of them. The railroad dick chuckled about watching people get naked in little clearings in the woods, never dreaming that someone might be watching from above.
When Steve reported this conversation to us later that evening, I think we each had the same, conflicted reaction. On the one hand, it’s a shame that the authorities feel we have to invest so much time and money protecting ourselves from terrorist threats at the same time that they turn a blind eye to so many social and environmental ills that a little bit of money could go a long way toward easing. And while Norfolk Southern was keeping an eagle eye on its main line, just last week a branch line in northern Pennsylvania saw a derailment that resulted in the spill of 47,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide into one of the state’s best trout streams, killing every living thing for twenty miles downstream. “The cause of the derailment remains under investigation,” says Norfolk Southern. This is the kind of thing that can and does happen around railroads, terrorists or not.
Further, in the view, I think, of all Plummer’s Hollow residents, the increasing militarization and privatization of domestic so-called security bodes ill for the long-term survival of the republic. “Homeland Security” already sounded like a cover for creeping fascism to us, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to have direct confirmation of our fear that we were in fact being watched — and not even by people on the public payroll.
On the other hand, as conservationists, we abhor the runaway expansion of the highway system with all its attendant costs in pollution, habitat fragmentation and economically unsustainable patterns of human settlement. It takes 100 times less diesel to ship freight by rail than by truck. If the government ever decided to shift taxpayer subsidies away from the trucking and petroleum industries and back to railroads, I think we’d all cheer, despite the cost to us in terms of added inconvenience and danger.
As I mentioned, we live only a mile and a half from the tracks. We have a pretty good idea of the kind of nasty stuff that goes by our crossing on virtually a daily basis. A major mishap or terrorist strike could easily render Plummer’s Hollow — not to mention all of Tyrone and vicinity, home to more than 5,000 people — uninhabitable. And in the event of such a disaster, given that our only access is across the tracks, how would we evacuate?
So you can understand why, the next time I have to walk into town, if the sky is clear, I’ll be looking up and giving a big, friendly wave. Nobody here but us chickens.