On Sunday, Sept. 3, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Lindsey Marie Michaels, 21, a junior at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa., and her boyfriend climbed onto a slow-moving Norfolk Southern coal train. Lindsey was killed when she fell under the train. Her boyfriend also fell off the train, but he survived with an injured ankle.
The 130-car unit coal train was moving at 3 to 4 mph on the Mon Line (a major coal route through Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley) on Pittsburgh’s south side and then picked up speed, Norfolk Southern spokesman Jon Glass told a local news outlet. He added that the train crew reported they did not see anyone trying to jump on the train and was unaware that anyone might have been struck. NS stopped the train in Etna around 2:55 a.m. after being alerted by Pittsburgh authorities about a possible pedestrian fatality involving the train.
Lindsey’s mother described her daughter, who was on the dean’s list at Carlow and studying to become a clinical perfusionist, as a “good kid.” She said she believed her daughter and her boyfriend, who has not been identified, thought it would be fun to try to jump on a train.
The activity that claimed Lindsey’s life is known as “train hopping.” What would possess an intelligent young woman with a promising future, and her boyfriend–who according to media accounts had been in a happy, long-term relationship with her and is now severely distraught—to attempt something so dangerous and irresponsible?
We’ll probably never know, unless her boyfriend can shed some light. He may have survived the ordeal with an ankle injury, but in a very real sense he, too, has lost his life.
I wonder if this young couple had seen, and had been influenced by, “Boxcar,” a sickeningly irresponsible television commercial for the 2017 Subaru Outback. A YouTube video of the ad is posted here. Subaru’s description accompanying the video is, well—I can’t think of an adjective that accurately describes my reaction of, “You’re joking, right?”:
“Hitting the open road in search of adventure is a long-standing American tradition. In the days before roads, adventurers would ride the rails. Today, they chase adventure in a Subaru. In this commercial, a free-spirited young woman daydreams of hopping a train as she and her husband set off to parts unknown in their Subaru Outback.”
The ad, which originally aired in August 2016, recently resurfaced as Subaru dealers work on clearing out 2017 vehicles to make room for 2018 models.
“Tragic,” an industry colleague wrote me after the news of Lindsey’s death was reported. “I wonder if she was at all inspired by this current automobile ad that shamelessly glamorizes train hopping and plays on the wanderlust of youth and the insatiable quest for adventure? As soon as I saw this ad, I thought it could lead to someone dying. Maybe it already has. When the girl in the ad’s ghostly gray boxcar disappears from the open doorway as it briefly passes behind some trackside brush, the words, ‘Everyone ... has got a dream’ are sung, immediately followed by a woman narrator reminding viewers that ‘Great adventures are still out there.’
“In retrospect, the sudden disappearance in the ad of ‘the girl on the train’ is symbolic of what would ultimately happen in Pittsburgh. I’m sure that 21-year-old Lindsey Marie Michaels had dreams. I’m also sure that being slowly dragged to death beneath a coal train in the early morning darkness was not one of them. Sadly, for her, no more great adventures are still out there.”
If you look closely at the ad, you might spot a barely visible disclaimer, “Do not attempt to ride a freight train.” Subaru added the disclaimer after receiving a letter from Operation Lifesaver.
“Operation Lifesaver and our safety partners remain extremely concerned about the Subaru commercial featuring illegal trespassing in a boxcar,” Bonnie Murphy, Operation Lifesaver Inc. President and CEO, told me. “While Subaru did add a small safety disclaimer to the commercial in response to our initial letter of concern, it doesn’t do enough to prevent copycat behavior when the commercial so clearly glamorizes illegal trespassing. It is time for corporations and advertisers to realize how these commercials contribute to the nearly 1,000 injuries and deaths caused by trespassing each year in the U.S.”
Nice try, Subaru. Sorry, but small print that lasts about three seconds doesn’t cut it. Better to have not produced the ad at all. What you've done is demonstrate a complete lack of corporate social responsibility, where selling cars is more important than public safety.
And what about the railroad that hosted production of the ad, and provided the equipment? Didn’t it have any concerns?
The commercial was shot on the Fillmore & Western Railway, a Southern California tourist operation. Movies, commercials and television series are a significant source of revenue for the F&W, which is not an American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association member. According to American-Rails.com, “Few tourist railroads have reached such celebrity status as the Fillmore & Western Railway. The line, situated in Fillmore, Calif., within Ventura County, is located just up the coast from Los Angeles. Its close proximity to Hollywood has provided it unparalleled fame, as it has starred in numerous movies, television shows and commercials since the late 1960s. In addition to its stardom, however, the railroad also provides a long list of popular excursions to the general public. These include such things as holiday specials, dinner trains, murder mystery specials and other trips.”
(The locomotive that appears briefly at the conclusion of the ad is FWRY Alco S6 no. 1059, which about 35 years ago, as Ventura County Railway no. 9, demolished Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future III.)
“I have a hard time trying to imagine the railroad, having seen the storyboards for this proposed advertisement, still going along with helping to create it,” a colleague at Norfolk Southern told me. “Do they so desperately need film-making revenue that they totally disregarded just about any veteran railroaders’ sense that this spot could possibly lead to tragedy?”
I emailed Subaru Director, Corporate Communications Michael McHale and asked for comment. He eventually responded via email, as follows:
“Thank you for your email. While the Subaru ad is depicting a ‘dream sequence’ of a course of action often shown in TV and movies, I understand and have noted your comments and passed them on to the relevant department.”
OK, what’s that supposed to mean?
If you are as upset as I am about what I believe to be Subaru’s insensitivity toward glorifying behavior that could lead to tragedy, you can contact McHale at (856) 816-1231, email mmch@SUBARU.com.
Perhaps if enough of us in this industry got on Subaru’s case, it might pull the spot. Better yet, it may prompt others to refrain from even considering the portrayal of dangerous and illegal activity on a railroad.
We’ve all seen many examples of such activities in advertising, social media, movies and television: people walking on railroad tracks, taking selfies on railroad tracks, beating a train at a grade crossing, riding on a freight train, etc., etc. I don’t believe such “portrayals” have any ill intent. Rather, they are the result of ignorance, a lack of understanding about railroads, how they operate, and why they are potentially dangerous for the untrained or uninformed.
Such ignorance, stupidity—call it what you want—isn’t due to our industry’s lack of educational efforts and community outreach, whether it comes from Operation Lifesaver or individual railroads. Vigilance is required if we are to prevent companies like Subaru from portraying railroads as harmless playgrounds and places to daydream.