For longer than a century, there was a single set of railroad tracks running north and south through La Crosse. At either end of the city, the tracks branched out into two parallel sets, but within the city limits, there was only one. Northbound trains and southbound trains had to take turns when going through town. Often I would see a train at a complete stop while its engineer waited for a train from the opposite direction to pass. A few years ago, however, the transporting of crude oil from fracking operations in North Dakota increased rail traffic significantly, and the bottleneck in La Crosse was no longer acceptable to the modern day robber barons. BNSF laid down a second set of tracks.
At the time, local environmentalists tried to stop the second tracks by claiming the berm through the La Crosse River Marsh violated wetland protection laws. Community organizers also fought the additional line on the grounds that it allowed trains, sometimes with a cargo of hazardous materials, to travel too fast near residential neighborhoods and schools. BNSF officials came to La Crosse to hear complaints, and then explained to protesters and government officials that interstate commerce laws allowed them to do whatever they wanted.
The north-south tracks are only a hundred yards from my house.* Because they are the other side of a small rise, I can’t actually see the tracks themselves. Also they are behind two of my neighbor’s houses, so from my living room window, the only place I can see the passing oil tankers and box cars is through the fifteen-foot gap between Sean’s and Ruth Ann’s houses. I feel and hear the trains more than see them. My house shakes enough with each passing train that small cracks in the drywall extend from the corners of most of my window and door frames. I’ve grown so accustomed to the sound of the trains I do not so much notice the rumbling as realize I can no longer hear the television or the voice on the other end of a phone conversation.
In my opinion, my street has the best location in La Crosse. Before I retired, I walked or biked to work at the university. My house is a ten-minute walk from a large urban forest, a ten-minute walk from the marsh, and a twelve-minute walk through a residential neighborhood to a good coffee shop. Downtown is thirty minutes away (five minutes by car), and just beyond downtown is the Mississippi River. The one blemish to my little cul-de-sac, as far as I can tell, is the train tracks.
*There are also a number of east/west tracks in town, but they are not near my house.