ESSAY: Respecting the rails

By Jacob Waters

Pity the intermodal container.

Freight containers that could be moved easily from boat to train to truck—“intermodal,” in industry jargon—only became standard about 40 years ago. This enabled easy transport and, thus, easy access to a stunning variety of goods. Yet many view this revolutionary invention as little more than a steel box moving in the background.

Except, of course, in Midtown Sacramento. Union Pacific trains loaded with intermodal containers regularly rumble up the tracks between 19th and 20th streets, paralyzing traffic. Drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike have no choice but to wait as they roll by.

When I first encountered this, having moved to Sacramento last August, I futilely tried to construct a detour. I stewed and grumbled, muttering to myself about how this never happened in Philadelphia.

Trains are unglamorous and geriatric compared to the flashier, frequently redesigned automobile and airplane. In historical recreation areas, including Old Sacramento, train rides are a fun novelty used to connect to the past. The Cars movies are big hits, but when’s the last time you saw Thomas the Tank Engine chug-a-chug into Shining Time Station?

Yet trains retain a critical role in commerce in the United States. Railroads carry nearly 40 percent of intercity freight—more than trucks and planes combined. The freight-train industry generated more than $76 billion in revenue in 2012.

This helps create the consumer utopia we enjoy. If I want to make an omelet, I can purchase what I need and be home in 15 minutes—impressive, considering that I live nowhere near chickens (at least as far as I know). At the store, popular or perishable products are magically replenished, whether they are made in Fresno, Florida or France.

That’s why I’ve grown to appreciate Union Pacific. Nearly anything that fits in a container rides those rails. Coal, chemicals, manufactured goods and farm products are frequent passengers. I’m reminded that products I buy had a long journey before I find them, dolled-up and shiny, on well-organized shelves.

It may be possible to look up the times of trains to avoid waiting for them to pass through town. But I’d rather chance it—after all, those minutes were only mine to lose because of the containers that whiz past. I shift to park, roll my windows down and am reminded.

Jacob Waters is a political writer and Sacramento newbie. He tweets @jacobwaters.

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