Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Debris On The Tracks

On Friday evening I boarded my train and settled in to listen to a an hour or so of digital music while I was whisked homeward in a state of the art commuter train, the very epitome of comfort and whisper quiet transport in the 21st century. No sooner was I settled than an announcement was made that our train had been cancelled and we should take the 6:07 Babylon train to Jamaica and figure it out from there.

This infuriated many people, me included. Why is it that the Ronkonkoma train is always the first to be cut in these situations? Surely it would make more sense to cancel the Babylon train since there are about ten trains an hour bound for Babylon (or that can be retasked with no great effort on the part of the LIRR dispatchers to continue on to Babylon from whatever local stop they normally terminate on)? Why cancel the one train that travels out to Ronkonkoma from Brooklyn? We all trooped in high dudgeon to the Babylon train and got resettled, only to be told minutes later that the announcement had been in error and that our original train was not cancelled.

You might think that this provoked feelings of spontaneous joy and hearty best wishes for all those involved with the day-to-day running of the LIRR but you would be, inexplicably, wrong. A torrent of vitriol was directed at the announcer by everyone as we trooped back to the train we had been on five minutes ago, but had now lost our original comfy seats to freeloading johnny-come-lately types. Another announcement was then made that there was "a problem, we don't know what" that would mean we would probably terminate at Farmingdale (one stop before the Steviestop, Wyandanch). Then another announcement was made that we would be stopping for "an indefinite time" at Hicksville, but would eventually continue on to all stations. In the end we didn't actually stop, we just crawled through the network at Hicksville, where the rails divide to provide routes to Port Jefferson to the left and Ronkonkoma to the right. No extra information was forthcoming.

Talking to people who ride from Penn station in Manhattan this week, I found out that the entire terminus had been severely disrupted with train cancellations and commute times stretching out to several hours. I also found out what had caused so much commotion.

It seems a young teenaged boy had been engaged in "tagging" some signals with graffiti and, belatedly realizing that it was near his dinner time, had raced across the tracks in his efforts to not be late. Unfortunately, he had not factored in the trains that normally take precedence on these same tracks, and he was consequently run over and killed.

The LIRR personnel never, ever, ever say "We just hit somebody". They refer to these incidents, if they do so at all, as "hitting debris on the tracks", presumably to avoid panicking passengers on the trains that experience the debris strike and to prevent the rapid onset of camera-equipped gawkers. I've always thought it a little cold, but can see the point. After all, there are many ramifications to allowing people to see and photograph an accident scene, both legal and moral.

The real kicker is that the teen's mother, obviously distraught from grief, has vowed to sue the railroad for not doing enough to stop her vandal son from getting himself killed by running around with his brain switched off. The problem now is that I and my fellow commuters will be paying for the inevitable flock of bloody lawyers that latch on to this poor woman’s grief-deranged statement and actually attempt to bring suit on "her behalf". I guarantee that right now a school of these humanitarians are rushing to comfort the bereaved parents and offer their services, for a modest fee of course.

Not only that, people are coming out of the woodwork to say what a good kid the tagger was, and that he normally wouldn't behave in such a fashion as to trespass onto railway property in contravention of well-posted signs and deface safety equipment, possibly putting every legitimate user of the railroad at risk.

The railroad can't win either way, of course. They can only show what everyone knows to be true: that the railroad discourages trespassers as strongly as it can because people are in real danger when they wander about the right-of-way, that in a collision between a train and a human the human invariably comes off worse and that the victim was actively avoiding detection because he was engaged in an act of vandalism with no thought to the consequences either to himself or others. In doing so they are attacking a dead young boy. If they don't defend themselves, the stupidity of the victim will end up costing the railroad in cash and bad publicity.

As a parent, I can only recoil from the horror of losing a child so far into his life, and I have nothing but sympathy for the parents and siblings of the deceased boy who are struggling to make sense of their world suddenly turned upside-down. I cannot, however, sympathize with the view that this is somehow the LIRR's fault, at least, not on the information I have right now.

Like many people, I believe that it is the parent's job to inculcate a respect for other people's property, a respect for the hazards posed by modern life and a respect for the law. As a parent, I also know that to blame parents for the failings of a child is usually naive. One's own innate knowledge of life should convey that a parent has little control over a child especially during the teen years, and can only hope that their guidance will be enough to see a child into adulthood safely. Too many seem to hold that while they may have been an independant free spirit, every other kid in the world is a robotic clone of their parents and any defect in the child must have a root cause in the parenting skills of his or her mother and father.

Not me. I know you can only guide, and that control is an illusion that lasts as long as the kids allow it to.

I have no doubt that the parents of the dead teen provided the guidance required. Once they have had time to grieve properly, they will understand that it wasn't their fault that their son was killed. What we all need to acknowledge right now is that it wasn't the LIRR's fault either. It simply isn't possible to police every foot of track to prevent foolish young people determined to enter railway property for whatever unauthorized purpose they have in mind.

Ironically, I find myself taking the LIRR's side in a blog whose function was in part envisaged as being a good way to let off steam at their incompetence.

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