Metrolink 111: The Freight Train From Nowhere
Shelley J Alongi


When it comes down to my curiosity and overwhelming interest in the Metrolink 111 train that collided with a Union Pacific freight train outside of Chatsworth on September 12, 2008, you could say that it might all come down to two things: the dogs and the cats.

This is some kind of bizarre segway into my consuming and sad interest in this rail disaster, a disaster which has sparked national debate and sadness from rail fans touched by such poignant losses. There is speculation and there always will be because we may never really know, that the accident was caused by human error. Everyone assumes, in conversations with me, on the news, in the print media, online, wherever one can find a discussion of this crash, that the engineer was fully to blame for running the light and slamming head-on into the freight train. Apparently the engineer of the freight train saw the other train and applied the breaks reports state that the metrolink engineer did not apply the brakes. Why would he? What good would it have done so close and so fast was the approaching freight train could it have made a difference? Iím not a physics major, let those who know such things speculate about them.

What I want to discuss in this essay is the distraction, the grieving stage, my feelings about this whole incident, and why Iím so affected by it. I was not at all acquainted with anyone on that train on that day. I was squirreled away in Anaheim doing my business, blissfully unaware of the fact that two trains had just collided outside of Chatsworth, California, killing twenty-five people and injuring scores more. Since then, however, it seems I have thought of nothing else. Iím no expert, Iím only affected by the humanness of the whole affair. Words and accusations no doubt will fly over the months as the families so affected and the agencies involved deal with possible solutions for preventing such incidents in the future. We will get on the trains and go to work, hoping, praying, and expecting to get home to our apartments and our houses, insert the keys, unlock the doors and find everything is as we left it. We will feed our families, pet our dogs, negotiate with our cats, get the mail, argue with our spouses, exchange words with the neighbors, rush off to soccer practice, or even consume a roast beef sandwich. Apparently this was to have been the Metrolink engineerís next meal since reports claim he ordered this classic American concoction just before leaving for his route. If you do all of this, you may, if you work over time like me, do a little bit of all of it and then crash and burn till we start the whole process over again. In short we will expect to run our lives as usual.

At the initial outset of this event, I was sympathetic toward the metrolink engineer. How could someone who had been involved in this profession so long make such a mistake? Was it his fault? Is there something we donítí yet know? I'm sure that we will be reading all kinds of stories from all kinds of angles over the next months, Iím not even going to speculate about what they could be. I could never make up those stories they will just have to materialize all by themselves. Deep down in my heart, in the guts where this very human story grabs me I am still sympathetic toward the Metrolink engineer. If you look not too long and not too hard you can find a very endearing picture of him holding an Italian greyhound puppy. It lends a degree of humanness to one of the statistics lost in the accident. It also strikes a cord with me, not because I like dogs (I donítí like dogs theyíre too needy) but I am the proud owner of cats and everyone knows they rule the house, and so there is a kind of kinship that exists between those of us who choose to commit our lives to sharing living space with animals. Thereís just something endearing about someone holding a puppy or even adopting them that strikes even deeper into my psyche and makes me ask all these questions.

Deepening this probe into why I have such sympathy with this man, you have to remember I have never met him. Certainly we shared the same track, and frequented the same stations at different times with different agendas. Weíve definitely been on the same train, the Coast Starlight. Iíve only been on it three or four or maybe even five times in my lifetime and Iím sure he wasnít there at the time, but there is that one degree of similarity. Personal tastes, preferences, tax brackets, experiences, likes, dislikes all may be very different, but that one degree of similarity remains: we did share the same track and at some time, the same train. My metrolink experiences never take me as a rule out that direction, but my other train journeys do take me out that way. So Iím still sympathetic. I still mourn his passing because I can just imagine his face at that final moment and it does grab me to realize that in a final moment if he was granted one, he could have realized his deadly mistake. That one moment altered the lives of twenty-five families and not all of them local. That one moment altered my life too, and in a very different way.

Over the weeks, sadness and sympathy has given way to anger. There is if you are in an academic mindset, a school of thought that suggests five stages of grief: shock, anger, denial, acceptance and hope. We tend to experience them all at once. When I did my work as a grief counselor it helped me put these different feelings into a kind of framework which explains things. It does not however make those stages any easier, or any less devastating, but it does give a kind of explanation to the upheaval that accompanies or characterizes our grieving process. So why am I angry? Because I am grieving. Why am I grieving? Because this is a very human story and it is, no matter how the chips fall in the end, a very human, sad, preventable, and moving story.
How does my anger express itself? I find myself at times thinking things like: ďWell, Metrolink trains donít wait for anyone, anyway. I have to run to catch them at the station and hope I donít miss one because the next one doesnít come till Iím late for my meeting. Apparently they donít wait for freights either. And what can you steel from me or your passengers? Life? A video game console? No. Life is what has been stolen in this instance.Ē These thoughts are ludicrous. Of course passenger trains wait for freights. Iíve been on a lot of passenger trains sitting at a lot of red lights waiting for half an hour, an hour, for a freight train. So it is unfair to say that Metrolink trains donít wait for freight trains. They do. And as far as steeling goes? The Metrolink engineer was convicted of a misdemeanor crime five years ago, why the media had to share this information I donítí know and so here I am sharing it, and so thereís just a sarcastic twist on steeling to sweeten up the anger just a bit. And hereís another blow below the belt. ďThe next time you decide to drive a Metrolink train and send text messages on your cell phone: donít.Ē Ok thatís just cruel and heartless, but no one has ever really said that anger was constructive or that the only cause for the accident had anything to do with a cell phone. I suppose we could look at it and say weíre going to get angry about this and try to prevent same track collisions in the future. Metrolink is already taking steps to do that. There is even an emergency ban on the use of cell phones by train crews. But my overwhelming question in all of this is: Since when has Diane Feinstein cared about railroad safety? Maybe we should all just be a little more careful.

Then thereís something that really gets me more than the anger and the sarcasm: fear. Fear of trains? No. Fear of what? Simply, fear of something coming out of nowhere and hitting me. I donít know why I have that fear. Perhaps it all started when I was twelve years old and my sister and I j-walked a street corner and she was hit and injured. Suddenly here was a car right on top of us. It came, it seemed, out of nowhere. So when I cross the street, or a parking lot, or any kind of open space where a vehicle can appear, I am very cautious. I never use my cell phone in traffic especially when Iím crossing the street. Every muscle is tense, every sense of self protection that I own is activated. I donít like crossing railroad tracks. Iím always afraid a freight train is going to come out of nowhere and get me. Ludicrous? Unfounded? Probably not. Not if we remember that perhaps to the Metrolink engineer the train came out of nowhere. So I suppose Iím grieving his loss because he was in the exact position that Iíve always tried to avoid: a place where something can come out of nowhere and get you. Did someone who had been a train engineer twelve years really not follow the signals?

Itís really hard to make sense of all of this at times. When I get angry and think things like the above mentioned I also remember people who have lost their fathers and brothers, husbands, and children. I wonder who has lost sleep over this incident? Who is really bitter. Iíve seen bitterness expressed online and if itís there then you know itís out there not always so evident, but there nonetheless.

Somehow weíll move on. Iíll deal with my grief my sadness my anger and hope for the future. Hope the next engineer who gets sick or distracted, or has some kind of trouble will have a system in place to protect him and his passengers. For now, we all must go on, though for some it will take a long time. May we all walk that road together, holding hands, and supporting each other through the months and years to come. And please try to be more careful.

On a final note, please pet the engineerís dogs, Iím sure they know nothing about what happened, they only know the one who loved them has gone. And as for my cats, Iím sure theyíll bear with me as my development with this whole thing continues: and theyíll ignore me because thatís what they do best.



Copyright © 2008 Shelley J Alongi
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