Which of the following poses the biggest threat to our way of life?
a.) Harsh NCAA sanctions against the Syracuse University Athletic Department.
b.) Mute swans, such as those in the Manlius Swan Pond, that have been targeted by the state as an “invasive species.”
c.) Oil trains passing through Syracuse that could explode in a massive fireball of death and destruction.
It’s a close call, but I’m going with Option C. While I fear the impact of those 12 lost basketball scholarships — and who doesn’t shudder at the specter of Asian waterfowl crowding out native species? — it’s the thought of being vaporized in a mushroom cloud of fracked oil and poison smoke that scares me most.
North America has experienced five Calamity Trains in the past month alone: in West Virginia, Illinois and three in Ontario, including one that exploded AFTER I STARTED WRITING THIS COLUMN! Syracuse would be safer replacing its tracks with a dynamite factory. Dynamite is more stable than the North Dakota crude carried in the hundreds of inadequate tanker cars that roll through Central New York each week.
The good news is that Sen. Charles Schumer has come out firmly against exploding death trains. Responding to the boom in rail explosions, he announced last week that he is pushing for tougher federal standards for transporting the super-combustible Bakken crude.
Of course, Schumer pushes for a lot of things depending on the news of the day, including cheaper pet meds and a lower tax on hard cider. Sometimes the well of Schumer outrage is so deep we forget what’s actually down there.
Here’s the concern: At some point Schumer will move on to the next big issue, say, legislation to mandate truthfulness in canker sore medication labeling. And then what? Shouldn’t we as a community be working on our own behalf to prevent the unthinkable? It’s our blast zone. Let’s own it.
Then, like a rolling fireball, it hit me: To build awareness, we should construct a model train installation that demonstrates in a fun, yet chilling, way the hazards of an oil train explosion right here in Syracuse!
Guess who got his caboose in gear and built a prototype?
See, some time ago I took up model railroading as a hobby, only to give it up after a few years. I don’t really understand why I embraced model railroading in the first place or why I stopped. I just know that when my sister in-law, Amy, bought me an engineer’s hat for Christmas one year, I started asking myself serious questions about the kind of person I wanted to be and whether people’s perceptions of me “mattered.”
I ended up donating my entire O gauge collection — including a large number of miniature hobos and hobo encampments — to my in-laws. It remained in their garage until this past weekend when I sacrificed select pieces to create the safety demonstration pictured here.
(Video by: Miranda Kramer)
Serious model railroaders need to cut me some slack. I’m aware that my diorama has limitations:
- The miniature Destiny USA threatened by the train fire doesn’t look like the actual mall. The architecture is too nice, plus no tenants have filed for bankruptcy.
- Using real fire to destroy the installation undercuts the goal of having an installation.
- An accurate depiction of an oil train fire requires many more tank cars. At least half of them should be too old to carry Bakken crude. But even the retrofitted ones should fail.
- There’s no mushroom cloud.
Creating a massive oil train explosion in miniature that checks all these boxes will require more expertise than I — or even Sen. Schumer — possess. It will require involvement of the Central New York model railroading community, donations of cash and materials, and a location that meets or exceeds local fire codes.
Tactically, the big question is: derailment or collision? If it’s the latter, we can draw on a famous scene from The Addams Family, in which Gomez crashes two toy locomotives for fun. For real-life inspiration, there’s the 2001 wreck in East Syracuse when an Amtrak train rear-ended a CSX freight train, injuring 62.
Mainline me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is gonna be a blast.
Feature photo by Matthew Neumann