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 after 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


• 9 June 09: Independence Pass
• 11 February 09: City of Stone
• 17 October 08: Every Silverliner has a cloud
• 24 September 08: Summer of the Delaware: Rivers and rails
• 22 March 08: Overbrook, West Philly neighborhood tour
• 28 December 07: All those little things; the year in review
• 17 August 2007: The fountains of Philadelphia
• 26 July 07: Bullet Time
• 9 July 07: Fare game
• 29 January 07: In the way of progress; the Convention Center expansion . . . and what we're losing
• 31 December 06: The year that was
• 22 September 06: On the importance of the gallery
• 28 January 06: Haddington, West Philly neighborhood tour
• 9 September 05: Mantua, West Philly neighborhood tour