Trains and Automobiles

From Seth

When I moved to Olympia I gained a new appreciation for trains. Growing up in New York, trains meant the subway, commuter trains, or the Amtrak to DC. Olympia, on the other hand, has a working port, and freight trains rumble through town daily. Indeed, the original synagogue (we have since moved) backed up against the train line and I would hear the horn on a regular basis.

I am more aware of the role freight trains play in the life of American industry and commerce. This is perhaps particularly true for life in the west, and on our drive we have seen long Union Pacific trains making their way through valleys and across plains.

In looking for a roadside attraction to break up our trip, we stopped at the Golden Spike Tower, a visitor center and observation deck in North Platte, NE overlooking the world’s largest train yard. It was a unique attraction and so interesting to see, combining a kid’s fascination with big machines with an adult’s appreciation of intricate systems.

This was more for fun and not directly tied to a justice theme…or was it? For I was drawn to it as well because of the knowledge of the construction of the Intercontinental Railroad, the project that created the first railroad from coast to coast, connecting the train lines in the east with California and the west. In planning the trip I was thinking perhaps we can make it to Promontory Summit, the location in northern Utah where the Union and Central Pacific railroads, both building from opposite sides, met and ceremonially drove in the final–golden–spike. (We did pass the highway signs on our way.) But we didn’t have time, and the rail yard would have to do.

For the fact is, the difficult and dangerous construction of the Transcontinental Railroad relied heavily on Chinese workers. In watching the trains pass through the yard it did not escape me that a major infrastructure project that bolstered the American economy was built with immigrant labor. It is important to remind ourselves this as we engage issues of immigration in our society today. Especially with so much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric based around “stealing jobs,” we need to remember to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for where we are and continue to be. (Of course, the jobs rhetoric can easily be a cover for simple racism.)

As I was standing in the observation tower, the volunteer docent pointed to a 120-car coal train and said, “That train is over 450 trucks off the road.” I hadn’t thought about the environmental impact of trains versus trucks before. On the other hand, the train was carrying coal, not the cleanest form of energy, and I have learned through some of the environmental justice work I have done in the Northwest that coal trains carry their own impact and environmental consequences.

I don’t think I’ll every tire of seeing a long freight train make its way along a beautiful western landscape. At the same time, I am more mindful of noticing what that train may be carrying, and who laid the tracks on which it rides.

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