Copyright 2014, Jules A. Staats; Library of Congress, USA.  All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. This work may be previewed only.

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Railroad Train on Fire;

How do you pull over a burning freight train with a police car?  


It was another quiet Sunday morning in Bassett California.  Jay was working Sheriff’s patrol in a black and white radio car.  He looked down the nearby Railroad Tracks and marveled as to what a nice sunny day this was.  Usually in the late spring, there was the constant morning cloud cover and sometimes the clouds were lower causing a fog.  Until the sun burned off these clouds and fog, the sun was usually hidden or the fog caused a visibility of only a quarter mile.  Today, it was crisp and bright, much like in the Arizona countryside.

Both of the nearest reporting district patrol cars were on report calls.  Having no company to talk to, he had stopped by the local donut shop by himself and filled up a large cup of black coffee.  He felt that he could sort of kick back and drink his coffee by the main railroad tracks that sliced through his patrol district, as it felt like it would be a quiet day.  He was later parked in a vacant lot across from the railroad tracks.  As he sipped his hot brew he reflected that his four children would once again have to enjoy their Sunday at home without him.  Law enforcement is mostly shift work that has no regard for weekends and holidays.

He gazed to the West, and he noticed that there no trains in sight.  A long ways off to his left, and coming from the East was a freight train.  He watched a train pass at a speed of about 45 miles an hour.

Jay started to add up the different names on the box cars.  When he was younger, and back in school, he and his friends would count boxcars, and keep track of the origin of each rail unit.  It was a good way to exercise your mind.  He just ignored the graffiti on the box cars, looking to see the printed origin where each boxcar came from.  At that time several railroads names were still in existence.

The slowly moving freight train had passed and it was time to check other areas in his assigned patrol district.  He shifted the black and white patrol car into gear and started into the highway.  His attention was immediately drawn to a blue full size sedan that was traveling much slower than the traffic flow on East Valley Boulevard.  The driver was also having problems keeping the car in his lane and was noticeably weaving.   As he closed behind the slow moving vehicle he noted the time on his analog watch that it was now 10:00 AM.  This could be a drunk driver driving slowly or it could be a person having a medical issue which was causing the poor driving.  The deputy sheriff decided to stop the vehicle with the intention of determining if this was a medical problem or the crime of driving while intoxicated, which was Section 23102a of the California Vehicle Code.  [1]

Jay had one of the newer vehicles of that time, a 1967 Chevrolet Malibu which was a considered by most to be a mid –size vehicle, and it was equipped with rotating red and blue lights.  The electronic siren could blast a warning sound through two speakers in the light bar.  He moved the emergency light lever over to the right, or position two setting, activating all lamps on the light bar and then tapped the car horn.  After traveling about 100 yards the driver did not appear to notice Jay behind him.  The deputy chirped the siren a few times, and observed that there still was no reaction.  He finally set the siren to automatic wail and the powerful speakers caused the deputy to roll up his driver side window.  Jay mused; (This person will not yield, I just don’t feel I should get on the radio for a low speed pursuit.  Maybe if I give the driver a little more time) [2]

His patience was rewarded as the driver finally moved over to the right side of the four lane highway and drove the right front wheel over the curb of the sidewalk.  There was little doubt that he had a vehicle with an very impaired driver but at least the man was now safely stopped.

He approached the vehicle cautiously from the driver side.  The subject driver side window was down but he could no longer see the driver at the wheel.  He then observed the driver lying down on the front seat, his head on the passenger side.

Jay shouted to the man, and he finally responded by slowly sitting up.  The deputy was treated to finding a highly intoxicated person who was driving a car while too drunk to even walk.  The drunk had sneezed without understanding what can happen when a person sneezes.  The result to the face of the drunken man was disgusting.  He walked back to the patrol car and asked for a non-emergency backup.  The drunk, who had passed out again, needed to be arrested, lifted physically so he can be placed in the patrol car and booked.  Jay and his backup accomplished this task while figuratively holding their noses.  The drunk had not just sneezed; much more nasty stuff had come out hours before.

Jay ended up booking a drunk driver that was still driving on the highway at 10 in the morning.  While booking him at the station, the station trustees--sentenced low risk prisoners—cleaned up the mess on the back seat left by the drunk while being transported.

That procedure over with, he finally got back in his car which now smelled of pine oil.  At least it was a more pleasant smell, he thought as he returned to his assigned patrol area.  He drove around for a while and finally found himself parked at almost the same spot he had been before, by the railroad tracks.  He wondered why the railroad tracks caught his rapt attention today. 

Then he noticed there was something wrong about the railroad tracks.  The single set of steel rails had recently been replaced with a new engineering concept which was miles of welded tracks, replacing the old mechanical nuts and bolts joint concept.  He had previously seen the new rails being unloaded by the rail bed.  It sounded like a giant steel tape measure being rattled.  He had never heard such a strange and very loud sound before.

He was also aware that the railroad spikes used to hold the old rails to the wood railroad ties had been left behind and that another crew would pick up these spikes as part of the conversion cleanup.  However a large number of the spikes were no longer setting beside the rails.  At least one hundred of these spikes had been placed on top of the rails.  Jay quickly drove across the highway which was parallel to the tracks and confirmed that all these spikes had been moved to the top of the south rail surface.  This placement of steel spikes could cause a violent reaction of the train engine wheels with the rails.  The reaction to these obstructions could cause a derail of a high speed train and a train wreck.  Many railroad cars carried toxic liquids, propane gas, anhydrous ammonia and even anhydrous chlorine gas.  A train wreck could place the adjacent home residents in a deadly environment.  Release of a dry or anhydrous substance can cause immediate destruction of a person’s lungs as well as eye damage and severe skin burns.

The deputy asked for a 10-33 emergency clearance and advised the radio room to contact the railroad and stop all train traffic on this section of the railroad tracks.  He knew the schedule and that an eastbound freight train would roll by at 50 miles per hour within the next hour.

Jay was standing by the tracks, knowing that there were too many of the neatly placed railroad spikes and these could never be removed by him in time,  as he then heard the far away train horn.  This freight train was stopping and was going to hit this extreme hazard in only moments.  There was a confidential police method of stopping a train, but there was no time to set the procedure up.  His stopping the train was not an viable option.

Then, Jay saw movement.  Behind a ramshackle wood shed in an adjacent back yard a 12 year old boy appeared.  He called out and then saw a group of 12 boys of the same age.  An idea popped in his head.  He motioned and told the group to come to him quickly and they complied.  A quick round of questions and he knew he had found the culprits of the placed spikes.

At that moment the radio dispatcher advised over the outside speaker on the patrol car that the train could not be contacted.  The deputy was not surprised as he knew that radio communication with a train failed at times.  Far away he could now see the headlights of the eastbound speeding train that was coming from the Los Angeles freight yard.

He had to make a decision to protect life and property which was his sworn oath as a law enforcement officer.  He had decided to put the group of kids to work.  He told them that the spikes on the train would cause a train wreck and that many people could die.  As a result he and the kids started taking spikes off the rails by hand.  The train was only about a mile away—still a comfortable distance--when the spikes were finely all removed.  Jay yelled for the kids to run away from the tracks.  A moment later the freight train roared by, on the just-cleared rails.

Jay was later advised by the Railroad Police that the large number of railroad spikes would create two possible dangers:  One would be flying half pound steel railroad spikes being propelled like tiddlywinks which could kill people even inside their homes and vehicles.  The other would be a derail of the speeding freight train, and a strong possibility of fire or poison gasses from damaged railroad cars.  The latter created a clear danger of killing the nearby residents and drivers on this highway.

He then resumed his patrol of his district, slightly disturbed by the near-tragedy that had been averted by an unconventional procedure, having the children who caused the problem fix the problem.  He logged the incident, but the details would never fit the daily patrol activity sheet, so he just wrote it off as an assistance to railroad police observation.  He could have arrested the twelve juveniles but he felt that it was not necessary.  The boys fully understood what danger they caused, and all promised to tell their friends that placing objects on the railroad tracks could cause destruction, injuries, and even death.  He felt that running all these boys through the Juvenile Court system would be a waste of time, paperwork and money as he personally felt that the issue was resolved.

The day wore on and the deputy sheriff had not received a single call over the radio.  He had traveled down most of the streets in his assigned districts.  He was very much aware now, that he only had three hours to go before he could return to the station and end this Sunday shift.  Once again, he felt a strange feeling about that location where the railroad spikes were placed on the tracks and as a result, ended up at the same place for the third time, just watching the rails.  There were no foreign objects on the railroad tracks.  He was now finally tired and ready to go home at any moment, but decided to watch one more approaching freight train traveling west, this time toward Los Angeles.

He started counting the box cars and tank cars as they rolled by, just as he had done as a child.  This relaxed him and caused the previous incidents of the day to fade away in his mind.

He stopped counting, as he saw a boxcar with a set of wheels on fire.  The fire had been building for some time and was apparently spreading to the entire underside of the boxcar.  A “Hot Box” that had gone this far could cause complete railroad car axel failure and a disastrous train wreck.

Jay popped the transmission into gear, and voiced a 10-33 over the car radio to get priority traffic for an emergency.  He advised of the boxcar fire and the direction of the train; westbound heading for Los Angeles.  Since the County Fire Station was only five blocks away, the response to the fire would be swift, except that this train was moving at a speed of 45 MPH with burning wheel bearings.

Traffic was almost non-existent this Sunday Afternoon, so Jay decided to turn on his overhead red and blue lights.  He drove on the far left and wrong side of the road with lights and siren.  As he came abreast of the crew in the lead engine he held his hand out in a fixed position in a way that said “stop.”

To his pleasant surprise, the diesel locomotive engineer quickly and smoothly stopped the train in less than a mile.  Jay ran up to the stopped engine and climbed up the stairway, which he soon found out was a mistake.  His palms were now crusted with black soot.  Trying to put that aside he advised the engineer of the boxcar fire, and that the Los Angeles County Fire Department was just arriving to what was a significant fire that was close to the middle of the train.

Note that he freight train also had what was called a Caboose at the rear of the train.  The purpose of the railroad employees of this last railroad car was to detect and report if an axel bearing overheated.  Apparently the Caboose personnel missed the whole thing.

The fire was put out without further incident.  An inspector with the railroad stated that the axle would have failed within a mile and stopping the train definitely prevented a derail and maybe even a train wreck.  The Industry switching yard was close by and the damaged boxcar was shunted to a spur that was only 50 feet away.

As Jay returned to the station at the end of his shift, he had a warm feeling inside that he had somehow maybe prevented two train wrecks.  What were the chances of always being at the right spot at the right time?  The deputy definitely knew that somehow, he was always there on the spot when a critical incident was in progress today, and he also knew that this was absolutely no coincidence.  He was just a deputy sheriff on patrol that was placed at these times and places, and as a result, protect many people.  And that was his job as a police officer but he was actually a tool of his Lord.

To the present day, Jay could still boast about one thing:   Not many cops can say they actually pulled over and stopped a moving freight train with red lights and siren.



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[1] The last number of this code section became a common word in California and other states for driving while intoxicated.  The two was adopted to define such an impaired driver as a “duce.”


[2] At this time policy and radio technology did not require informing the Radio Room of a traffic stop.