May 28, 2015

Life On the Other Side of the Tracks

Downtown Salt Lake City, viewed across the tracks.  Photo by David Ricketts.
Downtown Salt Lake City, viewed across the tracks.  Photo by David Ricketts.|| Downtown Salt Lake City, viewed across the tracks. Photo by David Ricketts.|| ||
By The West View

One of the defining features of the west side of Salt Lake City is the network of railroad tracks – miles and miles of steel snaking across the valley floor, crawling through our neighborhoods and streets. At night the train horns call through the darkness. If the air is damp enough, their songs can even reach residents on the east bench.

Whether you are annoyed or bewitched by the trains, while sitting at a crossing you might wonder about their history and social impact.


The tracks that united a country divided a city. They set boundaries literally and metaphorically, splitting life along the lines into the "right" and "wrong" sides of the tracks.

Our state's history with the railroad was inaugurated in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Over the next two decades, SLC's commerce gateway was established via a network of connecting rail lines. The Central Pacific line cut directly through Salt Lake's west side, altering its physical character and planting the seeds for its geographic, cultural, and economic segregation from the rest of the city.

The business of trains brought jobs and workers. The workers brought families. Most settled along the rail lines, forming the beginnings of the neighborhoods of Glendale Gardens, Poplar Grove, Rose Park, and Fairpark.

Industries sprang up on the west side, supporting life along the tracks. By the 1890s those industries included lumberyards, breweries, tanneries, foundries, a brickyard, an enameling company, and salt, ice, soup and biscuit factories.

The geographical segregation, the proximity of housing to industry, inconsistent zoning policies and the contamination of the Jordan River left the area vulnerable to blight.

By the 1930s, life on the west side had expanded, becoming a conglomerate of working-class residential homes, poorly zoned high-density housing, and industry.

In 1974, U.S. Route 9, a main road paralleling much of the rail line, was officially replaced with Interstate-15. The birth of the Interstate completed the geographical divide of east and west.

Dangerous Cargo

Trains are one of the oldest and most efficient modes of transportation in the U.S. Based on U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) calculations, trains are four times more efficient than trucks.

Union Pacific Railroad (UP) claims 1,248 miles of track in Utah. Trains run goods through our backyards, day and night. Commodities topping the long list are: consumer goods, coal, appliances, tires, plastics, autos, steel, minerals, hazardous waste and chemicals. Cars loaded with hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, and ammonia gas constantly trundle by. An accident involving any of them could be catastrophic for the Salt Lake Valley.

After 9/11, U.S. government agencies were concerned about possible terrorist threats to rail lines. The USDOT, backed by the Department of Homeland Security, issued a directive to "bar railroads from making that information public through media," leaving local emergency workers and communities in the dark until after accidents occur.

However, a recent surge in domestic oil production has increased the amount of crude oil running the rails. A rash of serious accidents in which derailments have caused explosions, fires, evacuations, and oil spills prompted the USDOT to issue an emergency order on May 7, 2014. In the order posted on their website, USDOT called the oil tankers an "imminent hazard to the public." The order requires the railroads to notify local emergency responders whenever a train carrying 35 tanker cars or more, roughly 1 million gallons of crude oil, travel through their states. Typically, an oil train carries 100 cars or more. "The safety of our nation's railroad system, and the people who live along rail corridors is of paramount concern," stated Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Transportation.

Waiting to Cross

IMG 6669Life along the tracks creates another safety issue: cars and people mingling with trains. The west side has eight registered main grade crossings. With dozens of smaller crossings, facing train traffic can be a daily occurrence on the west side.

While waiting at a crossing watching railcars roll by, you might wonder how long you will be there. There aren't set regulations, only recommendations, for how long a train can block a crossing. The reason is safety.

The Federal Railway Association states, "A federal law or regulation limiting the amount of time a grade crossing may be blocked could have the undesirable effect of causing a railroad to violate other federal safety rules." Utah UP employees strive to keep blockage to under 15 minutes. "We don't want to block a crossing," says Brandon Walker, a third generation UP train engineer. "We are like everybody else; we want to get the job done so we can get back home to our families.

Since 1975 national injury/fatality rates at railroad crossings have dramatically declined. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, in 2011 Utah had 15 railway crossing incidents resulting in 7 fatalities and 5 reported injuries. This is a 50 percent reduction from just a decade ago. But one life lost is too many.

Accidents can happen when people become impatient. Union Pacific Director of Public Safety Dale Bray said that many accidents occur when pedestrians, cyclists or drivers ignore the bells and flashing lights and cross immediately after a train has passed, failing to see a second train approaching.

He also cautioned against crossing over, under, or through a train while it is stopped. "It can take a mile or more to stop a train, and by the time a locomotive engineer sees a person on the track, it is often too late to stop."

"And never stop on the tracks or get too close when a train is passing," he said. "Locomotives and rail cars overhang the tracks by at least three feet on either side of the rail. If you are too close to the tracks, you could be hit."

For west side emergency responders being blocked by a train can be more than a nuisance. Salt Lake City Fire Captain Dan Gish said his Station 6 crew is frequently blocked by trains, especially at 800 South when they are traveling eastbound. "Stopped trains at 800 or 900 South delay us substantially. We have to go around to 400 South or 1300 South, if we can even turn around," said Gish. And until Fall of 2015, while the 1300 South overpass is closed for construction, that alternate route will not be an option. Based on the seriousness of a call, Captain Gish may divert the call to another station, which could result in a slower response time.

Train Art

IMG 6640If you do find yourself sitting at a crossing and the power of the trains, their historical and social impact, or even the mystery of the chemicals don't capture your interest, perhaps the art can.

Like the trains themselves, the graffiti on them inspires both love and hate. Not to tangle with the legality of train tagging, the art can range from scribbles to masterpieces.

At first glance you might miss the complexities of the pieces going by. Each tag or handstyle is a unique, often evolving style of art. Legally it is vandalism, the intent however is not about destroying. It is about creating. Using public spaces as their canvases, graffiti artists can express and share their views with society. Similar in the way an architect's skyscraper imposes in a city skyline graffiti expands beyond set boundaries invading daily life.

The messages behind the art can be political. Graffiti reacts to shifts in culture, laws, or policies. A common social issue at the heart of street art is the fight against gentrification, a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and businesses.

In its simplest form graffiti is a means to apply character and meaning to an urban/industrial landscape. Some of the art is territorial, acting like signposts, while other pieces are collective in nature – all of it fleeting.

When it comes to graffiti on trains there is an extra element of danger. "I think that is what is still attractive about getting up on the trains, it hasn't lost its punch," explains a local graffiti artist. Often commissioned to do murals, his art hangs in local galleries, but the lure and danger of street art draws him to the trains.

Most west side residents know how to navigate life around the tracks—which streets to avoid and alternative routes. They are part of the daily landscape. We carry around our own train experiences and stories, thoughts and memories as powerful as the rumbling engines. Their impact is as lasting as the steel tracks. Whether the sound of their horns fills you with love or hate, or you simply don't hear them at all, they are a factor shaping our lives even when the crossing gates are wide open.

The Death and Rebirth of the 900 South Line

DSC 8809The 900 South rail line was originally an extension of the Enamel Spur serving an enameling company located on 500 West. Passenger traffic was added in 1906 and transporting people became the main use soon afterward. According to Utah Rails, in May of 1971 Amtrak took over the operation of all UP passenger trains. The 900 South line reverted to delivering local daily freight, except for the occasional special steam-powered excursion trains and the annual circus trains.

In 1999 the 900 South line fell into disuse when the 400 West rail line was removed to allow for construction of the Gateway Center and widening of the on and off ramps for I-15.

The rail line lay quiet until 2001 when UP announced their plan to reopen the 900 South line as a way to alleviate congestion while the curves along a section of track known as Grant Interlocking Signal Tower were reconfigured to allow trains to travel safely through at a higher speeds. Trains once restricted to10/mph speed limits would be allowed to travel at speeds up to 40/mph, leading to less congestions and shorter and fewer blocked crossings.

But the residents living in the neighborhoods along the 900 South Line between Redwood Road (1700 West) and 900 West complained. The idea of 10 trains, 100 cars long, moving through their backyards seemed an impossible burden to tolerate.

UP and Salt Lake City officials, with aid from the courts, hammered out a compromise. Fences were erected, and a 30/mph speed limit and "quiet zone," limiting use of train horns were established.

Also in the works was a plan to permanently end service on the 900 South line. The request was approved in June 2006.

Upon completion of the Grant Tower Project in 2007, UP abandoned use of the disputed 900 South line as promised. UP transferred the property to SLC. West side residents, as well as UP and local officials headed by then-Mayor Rocky Anderson and City Councilman Van Turner hosted a celebration commemorating the official end of rail operations on the 900 South line.

In the summer of 2008, the tracks were removed and the land converted for use as an urban trail for walkers and cyclists. Plans for the linear parkway include a recreational hub and boat access to the Jordan River.

City planners envision an east-west connection using the 900 South corridor. Renamed as the 9-Line, the goal is to reunite west side neighborhoods and the rising business hub of Central 9th with the east side's 9th and 9th district.  pdfTo see the 9-Line Master Plan, click here.

The story of the 900 South line ends with a new beginning: an opportunity to cross the historical and geographical divide left by the railroad.

To read more on history of the railroad on the 900 South line online:
pdfEven "Quiet" Trains Threaten Neighborhoods Winter 2003/04 Issue

Safety Tips fromDale Bray, Union Pacific Director of Public Safety

  • Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should wait until the bells and flashing lights have stopped before proceeding through a railroad crossing.
  • Never attempt to cross over, under, or through a train while it is stopped.
  • Never stop on the tracks.
  • Don’t get too close when a train is passing.
  • Most crossing accidents occur when a train is traveling less than 30/mph.