Slow Down

saludaThe steepest railroad track in the United States is the Saluda Grade in the mountains of North Carolina. It is a boiler-busting, brake-burning section of track that Norfolk Southern finally closed a few years ago, because the time involved in circumnavigating that portion of railway finally proved to be too much for our fast-paced world. 

In the glory years of the locomotive, as a train approached Saluda, it would pull over for a complete inspection: Every brake, piston, pulley, and coupling. When the run over the harrowing mountain was complete, the train pulled over once again for another full inspection from engine to caboose. Further, only the most experienced and highly trained engineers could attempt the crossing, creating scheduling and personnel challenges.

Then, of course, none of this took into account the actual journey itself. The train would chug up the mountain, huffing and puffing, wheezing and groaning. Finally at the top, the engine would begin the descent down the other side. But the engine descended even slower than during the ascent, because the majority of the train – hundreds of feet and thousands of pounds – was pulling against the engine.

The railroad learned, after a number of chaotic mishaps, to employ “helper engines” at Saluda. These were big steam-engines, and later diesels, that waited at the bottom of the mountain. When a train went by, a helper engine – or sometimes two or three if the load was heavy – would fall in behind to push slow and steady to the top.

When they reached the top, the helper engines would then ride their brakes down the other side to keep the train steady and safely on the tracks. It was slow. It was tedious. It took great skill and even greater patience, but to get in a hurry meant putting cargo, equipment and lives at risk.

For the ten decades that passenger trains crossed over Saluda Grade, not a single train passenger was ever injured or killed on the journey. Scores of railroad workers gave their lives to make that mountain safe, but not a single passenger was ever lost. That incredible safety record was the result of engineers, firemen, and conductors taking the time and care to move people patiently along on their journey.

We all travel with precious, precious cargo – and that’s more than a sticker on a soccer mom’s SUV – that’s the truth. So why get in such a hurry? When your daughter needs a little more time to open up about a problem; when your spouse wants to linger over coffee instead of charging out to meet the day; when a friend calls needing a half-hour extra of your schedule, slow down and make yourself available.

Some people are traveling dangerous roads. Take some time to help them get over the steepest grades. It will involve huffing, puffing, pulling, pushing, and the pressures from all sides will be crushing. But life is at stake, and living is more important than our schedules.

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