We Got Railroaded

Although this story was originally published in my hometown, I’m sure you can apply it to your own setting.

I generally enjoy reading the banter on our community’s privately run Facebook page about the issues that the passing train causes. I live just north of the tracks and the only time I’m generally affected is when someone says they were late to church because of the train. I try to sympathize, but I don’t really have a dog in the fight. Or at least, I didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago I had an appointment south of the tracks. My wife’s car was on the fritz, so we had to share a vehicle.

I sent her a text. “I need to leave by 11:20, can you be home by then?” She texted back, a simple, “yes”.

I hate to be late. For me, late is when I’m not ten minutes early. As 11:20 drew near, I began my usual “I hate to be late” pacing ritual. I continually kept one eye on the clock and the other eye on the door anxiously anticipating my wife’s return.

I didn’t pay much attention to it, but I heard the train whistle. “Just another day in the Valley” I thought to myself.

I went back to my pacing and my phone rang. It was my wife. “uh, oh,” I thought. “She’s running late.” I wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t what I expected. “I just got up to the train crossing and the bars came down,” she said frantically. “I’m caught by the train!” By now, it was 11:19. “Okay,” I said, “hopefully it won’t be long” and we said goodbye.

Several minutes later she sent the text, “The train is stopped!” She then called again with a play-by-play update, “The one train is stopped and now there is another one going the other way! I’m stuck!” Taking a deep breath I said, “okay.”

My pacing grew more rapid and my shoes were now making grooves in the hardwood floor. I tried to relax. The texting alerts began again. At 11:32 “Second train just finished, but the first train isn’t moving.” At 11:35, “If I would have gone to Blue Springs I would have gotten caught by the second train. At 11:37, “this train is still sitting and I can’t turn around if I wanted to.” At 11:49, “I see the end.” At about 11:52, thirty-two minutes past her expected arrival, she pulled into the driveway and I ran out. As I drove, I sheepishly apologized to all of the folks before me caught by the train. Before, I was merely a sympathizer. Now, I empathized. “I got railroaded” I thought to myself.

My first memory of a railroad was at my grandmother’s house in Hialeah, Florida. My family tried to visit weekly. When I grew bored wandering the backyard and throwing mangos at lizards, I wandered off to the train tracks. I was fascinated by their construction and wondered where the trains came from and where they went to. It was fun to think about.

In 1990, my wife and I moved to New Orleans into a one-bedroom apartment at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Several years later, we decided to buy a trailer in the trailer park on seminary property. Like the Jefferson’s, we were “movin’ on up” and thought we reached the big time. The only drawback, other than living in a metal box in Louisiana’s sweltering heat, was the fact that we lived right next to the train tracks. A small price to pay for luxury.

It was apparent when the train came through. The foundations upon which our metal box rested shook and sometimes pictures would fall off the wall. Over time, we kind of got used to it. When friends would visit, and the train would come rumbling through and rattling our world, friends would say, “oh my goodness does that train bother you?” Our response was usually, “What train?” They were just haters who lived in the southside apartments anyway.

There were really only two times the train really bothered us. First, when the train came around a bend and the light faced directly toward our bedroom window. Thankfully, the aluminum foil we put on the windows put an end to that. The second issue was that the train would often stop on the track and just sit. After some time, it would start again. The roaring locomotive leading the pack chugged on its way, but the cars in tow hadn’t figured it out yet. However, when they were arrested to attention and commanded to move, there was a huge “clang” that sounded like Thor wielding a sledge hammer and striking a large anvil with incredible force right outside our bedroom window. The aluminum foil didn’t help with that problem. It was enough to make us shoot straight up in bed in the middle of the night. Over time, however, the frequent sound of the train brought a strange comfort and tranquility. It just made me feel like, “all was right in the world.”

The First Transcontinental Railroad was constructed between 1863 and 1869. It connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. The railroad officially opened for travel between Sacramento and Omaha on May 10, 1869. That’s when the golden “last spike” was driven in by a silver hammer in Promontory Summit.

According to, “A History of Grain Valley,” by Michael Gillespie, the Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago Railroad obtained a state charter to build a line from Mexico, Missouri, to Kansas City. By August of 1878, railroad work was in high gear as more than one-thousand laborers prepared the area for track gangs who laid an average of 1-1/4 miles of rail per day.

The tracks reached our area in January of 1879. In fact, Grain Valley, like neighboring towns, received its name from the C&A who had a say in naming the city. It seems, Grain Valley did not get railroaded, the railroad got Grain Valley.

The first passenger trains roared through our city in May of 1879 and, according to Gillespie, after one year of operation, Grain Valley generated over 260 carloads of outbound freight per year — mostly grain and livestock.

Ah, the good ol’ days of history and nostalgia. But you may wonder, “why do we still utilize trains anyway?” Aren’t trains outdated? Don’t they have an app for that? Interestingly, freight trains are cheaper, more economical, and better for the environment. The majority of trains in the U.S. are diesel-electric, which means, a diesel engine runs a generator that supplies electric traction motors that turn the wheels. They can also move more cargo more efficiently. On average, freight trains are about 11 times more energy-efficient than trucks.

“Well, maybe so,” you might argue, “but why don’t we just force the trains to stop blocking the intersection? They’re not supposed to. By law, all passenger and freight rail travel in the U.S. is subject to regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration. Rail travel has been under federal law since 1887. According to MoDot, it’s “unlawful for a train to prevent the use of any street for purposes of travel for a period of time longer than five minutes; except this does not apply to a moving train or to one stopped because of an emergency or for repairs necessary before it can proceed safely.” I’m no legal expert, but there are enough holes in this statement to call it swiss cheese.

So, when all is said and done, the train is good news/bad news. The bad news is, since the train was here before we even existed and is subject to federal legislation that is somewhat nebulous, crossing the track means that we will likely one day get caught by the train.

The good news is, the train is part of our history and heritage. We can choose to view it with a sense of pride, nostalgia, and wonderment. Finally, if nothing else, it can be a source of reading enjoyment on our community Facebook page on slow news days.

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