Trains were passing through Manteca a tad slower than usual on Friday.
It seems to happen every time after a fatality occurs along the tracks.
The latest was an apparent suicide by train. It was the second in three weeks.
This was not the fault of the Union Pacific Railroad. Nor is it is something the City of Manteca should have its feet held to the proverbial fire.
It does, however, underscore why periodical calls in Manteca for quiet crossings to try and rid the city of the train horns some can’t — or refuse — to live with that come with 14 at-grade crossings is a bad idea at worst and problematic at best.
And to understand that you need to put yourself in the seat of the engineer controlling the train.
Having lived and worked in Roseville where Southern Pacific Railroad operated its largest marshaling yard back in the late 1960s and 1970s before they were taken over by the UP, I got to know a lot of train engineers.
They would point out, when asked, that the odds are great if you are a train engineer that before you retire you will have been at the controls of locomotives pulling hundreds of tons of steel and payloads that end up killing or seriously maiming someone.
I can’t phantom how hopeless you’d feel — and how it could haunt you — to be in a position where you see a vehicle or someone on the tracks as you desperately try to stop a train. You can’t veer off course. You are simply along for the ride as all you can do is apply the brakes and watch hopelessly as the train bears down on another human being.
Train engineers are the forgotten victims of the tragedies that happened twice in the last three weeks in Manteca.
Federal law requires a minimum number of horn blasts approaching a crossing. Engineers are allowed judgment calls to do more than the minimum.
While we might grumble at how long, hard, or repetitive train horns sounding can be from wherever we are in Manteca, the train engineer sees stuff that we don’t.
It could be kids walking along the tracks. It might be people playing “chicken” crossing tracks after crossing arms have dropped as hundreds of tons barrel down on them. Or it could be a vehicle stuck on the tracks.
We could spend lots of money to create “silent crossings” that people clamor for because they can’t stand train whistles as background noise. However, in the scheme of things — motorists/motorcyclists that rev their engines, music from passing vehicles loud enough to vibrate windows a block away, and assorted other grating sounds that assault our eardrums — train horns actually serve a purpose.
You also have no guarantee engineers won’t sound their horns rolling through Manteca even with quiet crossings given the gauntlet they must pass through where pedestrians — either suicidal, are distracted wearing earphones or glancing down at smartphones can step in front of them at any time. Say what you want but a train horn is tough to not hear even with Van Halen turned up full blast in an earbud or if one is engrossed in texting while walking.
There is no other city along rail corridors in the Central Valley that has as many grade crossings where trains are moving at high speeds of 45 mph and above. If they have as many or more crossings train traffic is not passing through on a main line at high speeds.
This is not bad planning on the part of Manteca as much as how development patterns in the city — as well as other cities — occurred over the years.
There are unfortunately going to be a lot more tragic incidents in the coming years in Manteca such as the two that happened this month. Even if you closed down half the crossings and built bridges or undercrossings at all the others the tracks would still be accessible for someone seeking to commit suicide or for kids and others to cross or walk along.
The fact we have 14 at-grade crossings on two different rail lines is a blessing as much as it is a curse. And in terms of a curse, most of us would zero in on being stuck at crossings while trains pass or block them or else dealing with the noise of trains rumbling through town and blasting their horns.
Manteca is in a position for its economy to capitalize even more than we have from the positron we are at on both lines. That also includes the UP intermodal yard and even the Santa Fe Railroad intermodal yard that is eight miles away on tracks that will never run through Manteca regardless of how much we grow.
The advantage ranges from luring additional employers to emerging commuter rail connections that are posied to eventually become the most robust in all of Northern California if not the state.
And even if we as a city did not have the advantages afforded by being located where we are in the Northern California Mega Region with an almost perfect combo of multiple railroad lines and freeways, we need trains and trucks.
Everything we consume in some form made its way to us by truck whether it was the raw materials to make it or the multiple movements it takes it is in our possession. Trains are also a critical part of the movement of goods and to keep our economy rolling.
I admit my perspective is driven by the fact that for my entire life I have lived within a half mile of heavily used train tracks whether it was Lincoln, Roseville or Manteca. Where I live now in Manteca is the closest at just two blocks away.
And, as ironic as it sounds, every place I’ve worked has been within three blocks of main railroad corridors.
Each time I’ve moved or changed jobs, train noises have been different. The sounds of trains at optimum operating speed through Lincoln as opposed to those originating or snaking their way through the Roseville marshaling yards are different.
Manteca is a blend of the two. We have train traffic that collects and drops off thousands of intermodal movements a day involving truck trailers, the through trains, and the bane of the existence of people that need to cross the Woodward Avenue and Industrial Park Drive crossing — trains parked momentarily on a siding to allow other trains to pass.
Unless we have a couple of billion dollars laying around to create a trench, virtually any other solution to address noise, traffic issues, and even reducing the potential for suicide is going to pour a lot of money down the rabbit’s hole with minimal return.
The best we can do is be smart when we are around trains, have patience, opt for other routes if we can when trains are on sidings block crossings, and try and let their horns and rumblings simply become background noise.
We can curse trains all as we want but we can’t live without them.
And certainly we don’t want to risk finding out how many pedestrians that aren’t suicidal in an age where people walk around in their own little high tech bubbles won’t be saved over the years by blasts of train horns.