Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Song of the Week: "Last Train," for BNSF, UP, NRDC

Molly Peterson/KPCC

"Last Train" is an Allen Toussaint song from his 1975 concept album, Southern Nights. Allen Toussaint is a dapper, classy New Orleanian. (Even his Katrina-evacuation was classy. He spent it in the Crowne Plaza.) In a wide world of train songs, I chose Toussaint's song to go with this week's resurgence of interest in railyard air pollution. 

Last train running between the waters with the power line

Last train running around the hill

Last train leaving on the quarter out of time

Last chance to get your last trip

In "Last Train" the New Orleans legend compares himself to a train, trying to keep going. Toussaint wrote and produced successful songs for, um, everyone in town, and then worked with The Band, Lee Dorsey, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton. Like a lot of New Orleans guys, they love sampling him in the hip-hop world.

You got me huffing and puffing and chugging like a choo-choo train (Choo-Choo)

Huffing and puffing and chugging like a choo-choo train (Choo-Choo)

A hissin' and kissin' and missin' like a cuckoo brain (Choo-Choo)

Huffing and puffing and chugging like a choo-choo train (Choo-Choo)

Just like the engine

I have a junction

Feeling down

My head is wondering where to go

And you've got so many different trips you know

My face is wondering where to show

The metaphor could really serve just about anyone in the ongoing discussion about whether and how to regulate railyard air. So it's our Song of the Week here at Pacific Swell, after we covered the lawsuit filed by environmental groups yesterday against UP and BNSF railways.

It's not just that people who live in these neighborhoods think trains are a nuisance. (I mean, some people do; but that's not the point.) East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Angelo Logan's group, advocates for some rail. Logan and others just want to see that rail on-dock. Right now, trucks carry containers from shipping terminals to intermodal yards; a stopping point, from which rail lines radiate outward to wherever shipped goods are sold. It's those yards that are the subject of the lawsuit just filed. And as the ports anticipate growth, these yards anticipate growth, too. 

Environmental groups have tried to use the Clean Air Act to limit emissions at railyards. But railyards aren't stationary sources like refineries. They're not mobile sources, exactly, like cars, either. Now they're trying to use the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Which, if you associate it with anything, it might be sludge. Or toxic waste, which as with so many things, takes you straight to The Simpsons. It's not a crazy stretch, said a source in the story I reported yesterday. But it's new, and it could have repercussions around the country. Interesting!

As for why a metaphor about being a train might apply to a railroad, some of that is pretty self evident. Beyond the obvious, railyards (in their public disposition toward this issue) convey that they feel like they're chugging and chugging and trying and trying. They're electrifying cranes, and some equipment. They argue that they're meeting legal requirements. They're upgrading equipment when it ages out. And they're trying to stay profitable in a tough economy.

Oh, and if you've got another favorite train song, don't worry: this story is far from over.

Listen to all the Songs of the Week here