23 June 09: Train of Thought
by Steve Ives
June 24, 2009
There are many things in our daily lives that we really don't give much thought to. Simply by habit, most of us take for granted that our days are going to follow a simple and
reliable pattern; we get up, prepare, commute, work, eat, leave, workout, socialize, check email and go to bed so that we can repeat the process again the next day and the day
that. Rarely do we consider the possibility that our daily routine can be thrown completely out of whack in an instant.
The tragedy in Washington, D.C. on Monday made me consider that possibility. Transportation has to rank among the most mundane aspects of our daily lives. 99 days out of 100
our train or bus arrives or our car starts and we may encounter the unwanted but not totally unexpected delay and beyond that we really don't think about how we travel much.
It's a necessary part of the day but, like any other part, one we may only give more than a moment's notice to when something goes wrong. The other night I was chatting with
Brad and some friends when the topic of
the derailment came up and I shared a quick anecdote about my only experience with anything like it.
On March 7, 1990, a westbound El train derailed heading out of 30th Street station, killing four and injuring 158 people. Though I was only seven years old at the time I
remember how much news coverage it got and it was probably the first time I'd ever processed the thought that something like that could happen -- that a train, something that
widens the eyes of any seven year old boy, could come off of its track and hurt the people inside.
The El had certainly been a familiar part of my life up to that point. On weekends, my mom would take my little brother and me into town to see a movie, to buy clothes for my
frightfully fast growing frame or simply just to get out of the
house, and our preferred method of transportation had been the old, loud, rickety El with its odd green-and-orange wall panels and, as I used to call the fan vents on the old
M-3 cars, "four hats". It was fun riding the train. My brother and I would fight for the window seat, we made all kinds of excited noises when the train would go momentarily
dark after leaving the third rail going over a switch. Little kid stuff.
But I remember the time of the train crash. I remember my mother's words that suddenly riding The El, which had
carried millions of people all along its route in its 83 year history at that point, was not safe. She never took us on the train again for a family weekend. We suddenly became
very familiar with the bus and the whole concept of the train faded out of my memory a bit.
Because of mom's prohibition, I didn't set foot on The El again for three years until I started going to school in Center City and quickly realized that there were fewer red
lights under Market Street than there were on Chestnut Street and for a few months silently violated my mother's prohibition on riding that dangerous El -- sometimes to
the point of lollygagging downtown just so I wouldn't get home too fast and have her think I'd been riding it instead of the bus. The subterfuge ended not too long thereafter
on a day when I was really running late for school and Mom told me, "just take the train," to which I replied "I already have been."
I think I've logged more hours on The El in my life than many pilots do in the air. I've never owned a car and have never had a job or a friend or a free drink that The El
couldn't carry me to. It's as much a part of my daily routine as tying my shoes. I've ridden over the spot of the 1990 derailment hundreds, if not thousands, of times by now
and I've given thought to that incident when I've been in that area maybe four or five times. Usually, I'm thinking about where I'm going or where I'm leaving, I'm listening to
music, chewing gum, doing sudoku -- doing what people do on the train: not thinking about being on a train. You, me, millions of people across the country doing what we do
everyday and never thinking about it until we're not doing it anymore.
STEVE IVES ARCHIVES: