Keeping Track

“By the looks of the loads on the trains, housing starts are up,” my father said to me. “There’s more lumber. That’s a good sign.”

That was last month. Today the report came out from the Commerce Department: Housing starts were up in June 6.9% over May. They were at the highest number since October 2008.

No, my father is not a psychic. He’s a railroad man. He’s retired now, but he spent 38 years working in the freight rail industry. Now, he and my mother live in a house that’s only three lots down from a train track. When they looked at the house, he was afraid the trains would drive him crazy. Six months later, they often don’t notice the sound (and I can personally attest that the ones that come through in the 4am hour sound like they are tunneling into the living room).

Those tracks carry commuter trains too. They come lighter, less thunderous. But when a freight train comes through, my dad can tell what’s on it just by the vibration of the ground, the sound of the rails under the weight.

“Intermodal,” he’ll say.

All those years in the rail yards have taught him a lot about what comes through when the economy’s good, and what drops off when it’s not. I’d guess that for at least 30 of those 38 years, Dad could predict a mild uptick in construction before the construction industry could. He knew when the automotive industry was falling off – not just from deliveries of cars but from parts and tires. He knew when the weather had been bad somewhere along the line because shipments would slow down or back up. When Katrina hit in 2005, he wound up in a helicopter surveying the 20+ miles of track his railroad had lost to flooding, and eyeing the train cars that had been lifted and moved by the water, sometimes finding high ground a mile or two from the track. When the economy went bad in 2008, the trains got a lot lighter.

The country could learn a lot from guys like my dad.

The railroad industry is one of the least appreciated in the country, I’d suspect. It’s taken for granted. Sometimes people barely seem to recognize trains are even there. Unless they’re griping, complaining about waiting at a crossing, complaining about an accident at a crossing as if it’s somehow the train’s fault, complaining about hazardous materials coming through their towns.

The truth is, when railroads stop, the American economy stops too.

If it weren’t for trains, there would be exponentially more heavy trucks on the highways, leading to more crashes, higher fuel costs for everyone and higher sales prices at Wal-Mart because it costs more to ship the goods over land. There would be shortages of food, dry goods, paper, cleaning solvents, coal for electricity, cattle… almost anything you can think of. And yes, lumber.

This country is criss-crossed with train tracks. The connection of east to west with that rail was one of the finest hours in American innovation, paid for with a lot of actual blood, sweat, tears and broken backs. I grew up listening to one side of phone calls about shipments from one yard to the next, hearing my dad get up and go to a derailment at any hour of the night, drawing on the backs of pages and pages of intermodal routing printouts. For my first 18 years, the railroad impacted me directly. For the next four, it helped pay for my college education. And as an adult, I’m lucky to be a little more aware than most about all the things railroads do.

And if I forget, the housing start statistics… and the distant sound of a horn… will remind me.


Now on my bookshelf:
The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes
The O’Briens – Peter Behrens