Ask Jim Cook and he’ll tell you flat out: One of the stupidest things you can ever do behind the wheel of a car is to try to outrun a hurtling train.
Cook knows. He’s a veteran Metrolink engineer with 25 years of experience guiding freight and passenger trains across the West Coast and in his home state of Ohio.
And nobody has demonstrated more of a death wish, he said, than a Southern California commuter faced with a two-minute delay at a train crossing.
From his perch high above the tracks, he has watched helplessly as panicked motorists reach back to that most primitive part of their brains, challenging themselves--"Can I beat it? Can I get across in time?"--as the crossing bell clangs, the gate starts to close and 500 tons of train bear down breathlessly upon them.
Too many of them make the dash: Kids in souped-up cars. Little old ladies who should know better. Stressed-out fathers hauling a carload of kids in the back seat.
Some don’t reach the other side. That’s when people get killed, when the train slams into their car or truck or motorcycle, dragging and scattering it along the tracks like some jangled metal afterthought.
L.A. drivers, Cook said, need to take a chill pill.
“Everybody feels they gotta be there already,” said the 53-year-old Palmdale resident. “Back in Ohio, people take their time when they come up to a train crossing. They pull up slowly and they stop, look and listen.
“But out here there’s just so many near-misses. People won’t give ground, not even to a speeding passenger train. From up here you just have to ask, ‘Where are you going that you have to take those kind of chances? Why the hell are you in such a rush?’ ”
Fifty-two years ago, when another Times reporter profiled expert opinion on driving habits, Cook’s comrade was the busy streetcar motorman--a working-class bullhorn of a guy who each day dealt with darting cars and no-look lane changes as he steered his trolley down a busy city thoroughfare.
Here’s how that story began in January of ’46:
You think you have a tough time bucking traffic? Step back in the car, brother, and let Sidney J. Smith take over.
Sid looks at the city’s day-by-day vehicular vendetta through the motorman’s window of a Los Angeles Transit Lines streetcar.
“Traffic’s terrible,” he exclaimed, adding emphasis with a clang-clang of the bell. “Since gas rationing was abandoned it’s been getting worse and worse. They’re the same nutty kind of drivers, just more of ‘em.”
Streetcars like the one Sidney Smith handled would disappear by the early ‘60s as the city stretched its legs, annexing and building scores of diverse outlying communities, expanding its metropolitan identity.
Now, instead of hopping a trolley for a mere 20-block jaunt, Angelenos commute 40 miles or more from the Inland Empire and Orange County.
More than 20,000 ride Metrolink, leaving the driving to veteran engineers such as Cook. He’s the character with the cigarette-rough laugh, tinted wraparound safety goggles and hair so Brillo-pad curly that his cronies say he looks like ‘70s country singer Mac Davis.
“Sing us a song, Mac,” they say.
Cook, an 11-year veteran, handles the morning and evening commute along Metrolink’s Antelope Valley line, a 35-mile stretch that connects sections of Burbank, Glendale and the northeast San Fernando Valley with downtown’s Union Station.
His real problems with drivers come at crossings.
As his three-car train barrels north through the city of San Fernando, Cook blows his horn like there’s no tomorrow--two long blasts followed by a short one and a final bellow--to let stragglers at an upcoming crossing know that he’s coming through.
Traveling at 80 mph, he watches as a long-haul truck stops in the middle of the tracks, caught in the gridlocked traffic. Finally, the truck lumbers backward to get out of the way. Fifteen short seconds later, the train whooshes through the intersection.
Cook lets loose a sigh. He knows he couldn’t have stopped for that truck even if he had wanted to--a heavy train like his would take nearly a mile to reach a complete halt.
So, he relies on motorists to come to their senses.
“My advice to people? When that crossing light flashes and that gate starts to go down, take your time. Don’t risk it,” he said. “It only takes me a few seconds to pass by, then you can get on with your busy life.”
Cook knows that last year alone 20 people died in California in 137 crashes involving trains and vehicles caught in their crossings. He knows that a motorist is 40 times more likely to die in a train accident than with another vehicle because a train will crush a car with the same force that a car would squash an empty aluminum can.
He knows that 50% of all car-train accidents happen at crossings with gates and lights, meaning that some motorists out there aren’t paying attention to those safety bells and whistles. And he knows that most accidents involve drivers between 38 and 48, not the younger inexperienced ones.
Cook knows that the tracks provide a weird optical illusion, that a motorist really can’t tell how fast the train is moving, whether it’s 20 mph or 90 mph.
Engineers such as Cook remember the people who die in their paths. His last fatal brush came a few years ago when a teenager in a hopped-up Pontiac Firebird bolted out of line at a crossing and took his chances on the tracks. “That car got rolled up like a sardine can,” he recalled. “It ended up strewn all over the tracks.”
Back in ’46, clanking along a downtown street, World War II veteran Smith employed a choice four-letter-word vocabulary in reacting to selfish, risk-taking drivers, like the one who cut off his trolley, forcing him to jam on the brakes.
“Boy,” he said, a high refinement of expletives he used in the Army a year and a half ago.
Years later, Cook has his own dumb-driver monologues. People don’t realize the emotional toll exacted on engineers by train-motorist accidents, he said, especially those where pedestrians are killed.
And so Cook offers a last piece of driving advice: “Use common sense,” he said. “In bad weather, slow down. Don’t run red lights.
“And whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, ever take on a speeding train. Because that engineer sitting up there in the control seat could be me.”
To read the stories from Gene Sherman’s 1946 series on The Times’ Web site, go to: https://www.latimes.com/driving