US/Portugal: Stopped by a train

freight trains

The other day I was stopped by a train. As I sat there in my car, peering down the tracks for the first sign of the oncoming engine, I couldn’t help but compare waiting for a train in Portugal to waiting for a train in the US. Or at least, the western US, where nearly all trains are of the freight variety.

Here’s how it works in Oregon:

– The crossing guard arms go down, the lights flash.

– You turn off your car engine, because there’s no point in leaving it running.

– You wait.

– You wait some more.

– You get out of your car and do a few yoga stretches.

– You hear the distant sound of the locomotive’s horn, blowing somewhere at the other edge of town. US regulations require that trains blow their horns upon arriving at a town and at regular intervals while passing through it, in case some drivers or pedestrians didn’t catch a clue from the flashing lights and lowered crossing guard arms.

– The ground begins to rumble, a horn blast rattles your car windows, and the train is finally upon you. Laden with unimaginable weights of freight, it makes the whole area shake as it passes. You can feel the bass notes of the vibrations in your chest.

– You begin counting the train cars, because you’re bored and have nothing else to do.

– At fifty-two you lose count and give up. Instead you begin counting the numbers of cars that are covered in graffiti. They’re easy to spot, because the train is moving at a snail’s pace — freight trains have very low speed limits inside city boundaries. Did I mention that they can be over a mile long?

– Some ten minutes after the lights first began flashing, the pushing engine of the train finally goes past. Another minute after that, the crossing guard arms go up and you are finally allowed to pass.

I might have exaggerated a little about the yoga. But the rest is perfectly accurate. I used to work in a building that was one block away from the train tracks, and whenever a freight train passed, we’d just hold things down on our desks. Conversation was impossible. At times I’d be on the phone with a caller, who would ask in alarm, “What is that?” At least I assumed that’s what they were saying, since I couldn’t actually hear it.

alfa pendular

Now, here’s what getting stopped by a train looks like in Portugal:

– The crossing guard arms go down, the lights flash.

– You peer down the tracks for the headlights of the train. About thirty seconds later you see it.

– Fifteen seconds after that, the train is upon you. If it’s the Alfa Pendular, the high-speed train, then it’s going about 220 kph (137 mph) between towns and a bit slower while passing through towns. Even the Intercidades trains, which have a lower top speed and stop in more towns, run much faster than US freighters.

– About 90 seconds from the time the lights first began to flash, the crossing arms lift and you’re on your way. There never was any time to count the cars.

A few months back I watched a hormone-challenged halfwit drive around the crossing arms and beat the approaching train by about three seconds. I was absolutely agog at the idiocy. Back home I had some tiny bit of understanding of that kind of risk-taking, because damn, those trains take forever. But here? What is the point?

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, Portugal, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to US/Portugal: Stopped by a train

  1. Kugai says:

    Some people are just suicidal by nature.

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