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 be heard by 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.
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 rash of serious accidents in which oil tanker derailments have caused explosions, fires, evacuations, and oil spills prompted the USDOT to issue an emergency order in 2014 that 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
Life 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 frustrating, 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 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.
Train Graffiti Art
If 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.
At first glance you might miss the complexities of the pieces going by. The art can range from scribbles to masterpieces. Each tag or “handstyle” is a unique, often evolving, style of art.
Legally, train graffiti is vandalism. The intent however is not to destroy, it is to create, said one local graffiti artist (who wished to remain anonymous). Using public spaces as their canvases, graffiti artists express and share their views with society. Similar to 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 putting graffiti on trains there is an element of danger. “I think that is what is still attractive about getting up on the trains; it hasn't lost its punch,” explains the 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 who have lived here long enough know how to navigate life around the tracks. They know which streets to avoid and alternative routes to take. Trains are part of the daily landscape. We carry around our own train experiences and stories, thoughts and memories as powerful as the rumbling engines. Whether the sound of their horns fills you with love or hate, their impact is as lasting as the steel tracks themselves.
Safety Tips from Dale 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.