Death on the Rails
An Amtrak tragedy
by Theodore W. Hall
On Sunday night, I was riding an Amtrak train from Chicago to Ann Arbor that struck and killed a person in Jackson shortly before midnight.
A bit earlier, closer to Kalamazoo, the train had stopped abruptly between stations for about half an hour. The conductor announced over the intercom that they had to "check the tracks." I recalled that three days earlier a train had derailed in Chicago. So, if they felt the need to check the tracks here, I was all for it. It was only after we were moving again that the conductor revealed that they had been checking for a body. The engineer had seen something across the tracks, but thankfully it wasn't a person. (From another source, I've heard that there are frequent encounters with deer along that section of rail.)
We were nearly to the Jackson station. The conductor had just announced that we would be arriving in a few minutes, when the train made another abrupt stop. Our position short of the station, and the rapid pace of an agitated conductor (with a whispered "oh shit") revealed that something was wrong. But the passengers neither saw nor felt any collision. I assumed there was some mechanical problem.
After some time, another conductor - the senior man, I guess - entered the car. Calm and to the point, he said he didn't want to upset any children, but there had been a fatality: someone had been trespassing on the tracks. The authorities were investigating. In the meantime, the train couldn't move and we couldn't get off until buses arrived to bring us the rest of the way to Ann Arbor and Detroit.
There were no screams, gasps, or sobs. The car was silent for a few seconds, then the chitchat resumed. For most of us, it was like hearing such a story on the TV news, except that our incidental involvement in this one was going keep us here for some number of hours.
passenger, though, was angry. The conductor had barely finished his announcement before she started to complain. "Is he an idiot? Is he blind? He said he didn't want to upset any children, and my daughter is sitting right here!" The daughter was as tall as the mother - well beyond the age of sheltering from words like "fatality."
My parents used such events as life lessons. "Wasn't so-and-so a classmate of yours? He was killed in a car wreck last night: speeding and lost control."
I wondered about the person who had been killed. We had no details. It might have been a teenager much like this woman's daughter. Perhaps a woman like her was now receiving the tragic news. On the other hand, if it were a homeless person with no one to mourn the loss, it would be no less tragic.
The angry woman called someone on her cell phone and announced, far more bluntly than the conductor, with her daughter right there next to her, that the train had run someone over.
Meanwhile, near the front of the car, a male college student was discussing his classes. He had the sort of voice that cuts through the air even when speaking softly: he loves astronomy, but hates Latin, and so on.
The woman, still speaking loudly into her cell phone, proceeded to complain about him - everything from his voice to the silly hat he was wearing. She said she'd kill him (in the casual way that people use that phrase) if he didn't shut up.
The rest of us were just trying to sit quietly and catch some shuteye while we waited for events to unfold and the buses to arrive. From my perspective, there were two jarring voices in the car, and hers was the worst.
Over the course of several hours, conductors passed back and forth through the train as they dealt with the situation as well as they could. At one point, a passenger asked politely for information about the buses. "That's a good question," he responded. "I'll check that out right now." The woman latched her sarcasm onto that: "Oh good, he's going to check. Duh? What's the problem? Doesn't he have a phone? Hey, do you want to borrow mine?" But she never addressed him to his face. She would comment loudly behind his back, then turn and look at the rest of us for approval.
Death had caused this woman an inconvenience, and by God she was determined to make sure everyone was aware of it. Somewhere in a comfortable home in Ann Arbor she's probably still complaining about how awful it was for her.
It is inevitable that, sooner or later in life, this woman will face a tragedy of her own that will inconvenience others. I foresee her distress when the world doesn't stop for her. By and large, the other passengers will go about their lives and work around the little trouble she'll cause them.
* * *
The next day, I searched the web for information about the incident. I learned that "... on average, locomotive operators are involved in three fatalities over the course of a career.". The victim in Jackson was a a fifty-four-year old woman--apparently a suicide.
[Originally published in October, 2009.]