The Trains Project


Boston Review
Eight young people hurtling toward a fate that they didn’t want to consider or to control died in a fire in an abandoned warehouse in New Orleans’ 9th Ward on December 28, 2010. How did they end up in that place on that night? What forces drew them to ride the rails, and to live on the streets, and what did they leave behind?  Two weeks after the fire I journeyed to New Orleans to find answers, detailed in The Boston Review story titled “A World on Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat.”  I also found a larger story.

Generations of Americans have projected their hopes, dreams and fantasies onto the vast spaces best seen from the open door of a boxcar. Trains charging across the plains and through ruined factory towns serve as an escape from the monotony of everyday life, the responsibilities that one can no longer meet, and the regrets one cannot face. Yet the spaces between the miles-long strands of freight cars hide a multitude of secrets. The railroads have a reality of their own, a world of danger, violence, gangs, crime and terrorism.  Most of the eight who died in the squat fire knew this world well, and chose it anyway.  The rest of us know very little about about the secret life of the rails.