Living on the Edge

charlottesville residents and university students tell of tales on the tracks
by patricia cooper for the charlottesville (va) cavalier daily
march 18, 2003

The chugging gets louder. The train gets closer. The whistle blows and the line of empty freight cars rounds the corner.

Avoiding the engineer's wandering eye, the train hopper quickens his pace to a run. Spotting the car he wants to hop, he grabs the ladder with his hand. After securing his hands and feet, the free-loader enjoys the thrilling ride.

Whether it be out of laziness or a desire for risk, train hoppers gravitate toward the Charlottesville tracks in search of empty freight cars with welcoming ladders.

While train hopping may seem like a hobby for hobos or outlaws, University students and Charlottesville residents have made use of the freight cars for free transportation ever since the railroads were built.

According to informational plaques lining the walls of the Charlottesville train station, the first tracks in Albemarle were laid by the Louisa Railroad Company in the 1840s. The first Charlottesville depot was built in 1857.

While passengers today travel on the Crescent and the Cardinal Amtrak trains, most of the trains that pass through Charlottesville are empty freights on their way back to the coal mines of West Virginia and Kentucky, Amtrak Conductor Howard Goodloe said. These empty coal cars are the ones that attract the train hoppers.

Gregory Spivey, a 1978 Architecture alumnus, said he remembers hopping the coal cars with friends.

A Lambeth resident during his second year, Spivey said the train was convenient and no fences barred access to the tracks.

"We would walk up to the tracks and grab the train and ride it down to the Corner," Spivey said. "And we would hop off in the parking lot behind Little John's."

If the train was going in the other direction, they also would take it to the Cage by University Hall, he said. Although Spivey said he didn't know of anyone who was caught or hurt, Spivey said they would hop off when they were yelled at by the engineers.

Spivey said he recalls one friend named Billy O'Reagan who hopped trains more often than anyone else. He called Billy and his girlfriend "free spirits" who would routinely hop trains on the weekends.

"I never knew anybody but Billy who actually went anywhere on the trains," Spivey said. "They would take it up to the Blue Ridge and camp in the mountains. It was dangerous if the train was moving too fast, but Billy was crazy. He would go after a fast-moving train when the rest of us were like, 'no way.'"

While O'Reagan used the trains to get to the mountains, current Charlottesville resident and living wage advocate for University contract workers Andrew Holden has a more practical need for the trains - transportation to work.

Although Holden said he hasn't jumped a train for several months, he occasionally has taken a train from his home on Ridge Street to his workplace at the Virginia Organizing Project on Preston Avenue.

"They are not always predictable but you get up in the morning, start running, hop the train and ride one of the ladders on the side and then hop off when you are near your workplace," Holden said.

In addition to riding the trains, Holden said he likes to simply walk on the tracks.

"To get around Charlottesville, I walk on the train tracks," Holden said. "They are my roads. You can find old train parts and make wind chimes out of those or you can play the harmonica as you walk."

While Holden said he enjoys walks along the tracks, second-year Engineering student Catherine Hovell said she uses the tracks as a running path. Hovell is a member of a running group that runs in non-traditional places. Hovell said they ran off Route 250 near McIntire Park down the train tracks on Sunday. "We ran down a hill and then there was a train track," Hovell said. "I kept trying to run on the railroad ties since the gravel in between can practically twist an ankle but it is kind of awkward."

Hovell said she was a little nervous about running on the tracks but she trusted the people she was with.

"I don't aim for the tracks, but sometimes it is fun to take risks," she said.

Hovell is not the only University student to seek adventure on the railroad tracks.

Second-year Engineering student Aprotim Sanyal said he recalls feeling the urge to explore after a long day of studying.

When Sanyal's friend made a wrong turn to get back to his apartment after a stop at the Doughnut Connection, they had to turn around in a gravel lot. Instead of driving back, they got out and walked by the tracks. Their exploration lead to a surprising discovery.

"All of a sudden we heard this meowing sound, and I didn't recognize it, but M. Bickers recognized it and started meowing back at the kittens and we followed the sound under a bush near the tracks," Sanyal said. "Two black kittens and a calico kitten came out. We couldn't find the mother anywhere so we picked them up and took them to M's place and nursed them there."

While walking on the tracks or jumping trains may be fun and adventurous, it remains dangerous and illegal. George Carlin, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, is a volunteer for Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization that teaches classes on train safety.

"People don't realize how easy it is to get killed," Carlin said.

Carlin said an automobile and a train collide every 100 minutes, and a person is 40 times more likely to die in a train collision than in a collision with another car.

He also said that one locomotive weighs 300 to 400 tons, so one train can weigh 6000 to 8000 tons. Therefore, it takes one and one half miles to come to a complete stop if a train is moving at 25 mph.

Over the past six months in Charlottesville, one person was killed, a drunk individual sitting with his legs dangling off the side of the bridge had a leg broken by a passing train and one man's all-terrain vehicle was crushed after he got it stuck on the tracks, Carlin said.

Conductor Goodloe said his biggest fear is hitting an automobile and killing somebody.

"We have come so close to killing some people, it's not funny," Goodloe said. Goodloe said he once hit a Mitsubishi Mirage running between 10-15 mph. He said it is a miracle that the girl was not hurt, but the car was shoved 150 feet beyond the crossing.

Third-year College student Laura Benavitch said she recalls playing on the railroad tracks as a child.

"We would always go down to the railroad tracks to play because we weren't supposed to," Benavitch said. "We would always play underneath the bridge, but one day we got it into our heads that we were going to cross the bridge to the other side."

While walking across, Benavitch said she and her friend heard a train coming while they were in the middle of the bridge. They ran back and got off the bridge right before the train came by. "We didn't play down there anymore," she said.

Train hopping and strolling along the tracks is risky but the train tracks remain a place of intrigue for many.

In the words of Holden, "It is quiet. There is no traffic, and if you are with a friend, you can hear them talk. There is no exhaust and you get to be around nature. It shows you the city in a way that being on the roads doesn't let you see."