I was going to cross the railway bridge over the Padden Creek Lagoon - but paused as I heard the dull, quiet rumble of a train engine from the direction of Poes Point - toward the west and Bellingham Bay. I looked at the bridge and knew it was only a half minute walk across. But prudence took control and I decided to wait. Out of curiosity, I took out my iPhone, selected the stop watch - and started it. I wondered how long it would take the train to get to me and if my prudence was just excessive old-man-caution.
Two types of trains come through Bellingham - slow freights and Amtrak. If it was a freight, I could be there 10 minutes waiting for it. If it was an Amtrak passenger train, it would stop at the station about 300 yards away and I could safely cross the bridge. So it surprised me when the train came around the bend at Poes Point maybe 15 seconds after I started the stopwatch - half a mile from where I stood. So, standing in the middle of the tracks, I took a photo of the train - looking to compose a nice photo in the late afternoon light with the shining tracks. Then I noticed the train was really blasting its horn or whistle but I couldn't tell whether it was the awful freight engine horn or the melodic Amtrak whistle. Obviously, it was sounding for the Harris Avenue crossing.
I focused and took a second photo - and the train was past the Harris Avenue crossing and the whistle was blaring with urgency. I suddenly realized it was screaming at me. And just as suddenly I felt like Strelnikov’s armored train from the movie Dr. Zhivago was screaming toward me. I started toward the land side of the tracks and reversed to go out the dock as it provided more room away from the tracks. It was then that a feeling of fear finally gripped me as I backed away from the tracks.
The train was neither a freight nor Amtrak. It was a custom luxury train, the Rocky Mountaineer. And on a dozen Saturday evenings in the summer, it powers from Seattle to Vancouver with only one stop for customs. It comes through Bellingham at 40 or 45 mph, the speed for passenger trains. But by not stopping at the Amtrak station, it really has speed along the Fairhaven waterfront - a fact I discovered over the course of maybe 20 seconds.
I backed away in time and stood agape watching a sleek and wonderfully painted passenger train roar by me. Two engines and just seven cars. It was beautiful and awesome. The Rocky Mountaineer is a Vancouver, B.C., company that runs these custom trains through the Canadian Rockies for the scenery and ambience. They are luxury trains that stop for the night and passengers are booked into hotels. They slow for wildlife photographs and awesome landscapes or views. The trips cost thousands of dollars. The trains originate in Vancouver and a year ago they started running this feeder train, allowing passengers to get on in Seattle and then switch to another train in Vancouver.
I post this article for two reasons. First is to share information about this cool train that traverses Bellingham. Their website has views and video of the Bellingham waterfront as well as the train running along Chuckanut Bay.
My second reason is safety. Many of us occasionally walk the tracks to enjoy the waterfront. We may feel we are savvy of the train whistles - freight or Amtrak - and the speeds. I did. But even those of us who think ourselves cautious and alert can find ourselves only half aware of what is happening. I did. Since this incident, I’ve been reminding myself not to go slack on ‘situational awareness’ just because of familiar surroundings. And so I want to share that with you, gentle reader. Railroad tracks can be safely walked but require an extremely heightened level of awareness and a quick readiness to do the prudent thing: not get caught in a bad spot where you cannot quickly get off the tracks. “Quickly” for me was about 20 seconds. Or less.
The last Rocky Mountaineer train of 2015 will run next Saturday. Southbound about 10 a.m. and northbound about 6 p.m. along our waterfront. Late next May it will resume for the summer. After the train passed and I took a couple of departing photos, I looked at my iPhone stopwatch. A minute and 15 seconds had passed. Gawd, that was fast. But what a beautiful train.