Car-train crashes on purpose were less hassle in Pearland

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

Several decades ago I got a phone call from then-Pearland Police Chief P.M. “Mike” Hogg.

“We’ll be closing off 35 so they can crash a train into a car. I thought you’d be interested,” he said.

As a reporter covering this area for the Houston Chronicle, I would indeed be very interested in something like that. It’s not every day that a Union Pacific train crashes into a car on the railroad track on purpose.

Mike retired from the Pealrand Police Deaprtment in 1999. He used to call me periodically - before I left the Chronicle in 1995 to become editor and publisher here - about stories he thought would be of interest. He had good news judgement, because most of the tips turned into good stories.

It helped that I lived in the area that I also covered. It would have been harder to establish these kind of contacts from downtown Houston.

On the day of the big crash, the police department closed down Texas Hwy. 35 at the railroad crossing as the train did a few test runs, and then the final crash.

I don’t remember traffic being backed up all that much. That was the old Pearland, where life was much the same as the rest of Brazoria County. They had development - because people in Houston were discovering the little city to the south where life was slower and quieter - but not anywhere near the scale it is today.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Lake Jackson was the hub of the county. It had a mall. That was bragging rights. If you mentioned shopping, that’s where you were headed, unless you wanted to go to Houston. To most of us in south Brazoria County, Pearland was just some subdivisions and a city you went through on your way to Hobby Airport.

Right in the center of the city, Hwy. 35 crossed the railroad tracks, where the car-train crash demonstration took place.

Lake Jackson is still the shopping mecca of south Brazoria County, but Pearland has changed - a lot. It has become a traffic-jammed suburb of Houston, where there can be a huge traffic back-up anytime, for any reason.

Driving through the north part of the county used to be a breeze; now it’s a hassle. FM 518 used to be a two-lane road. When Hwy. 288 opened in 1982 all the way to Brazosport, FM 518 was surrounded by farmland and a few subdivisions, including Silver Lake. Shadow Creek was not even a thought.

We all knew that change would be coming. The city always heralded growth. It was just a matter of time when Houston would make this city one of its suburbs.

Each time I drive up there now, I dread the thought of having to exit onto FM 518 and waiting until the cows come home to make that left turn. The cows are not coming home, though. There are no cows. There used to be before all the people showed up and the farmlands became subdivisions.

I’m not, or wasn’t, against progress. Even if I were, it was obvious to everybody that Pearland was on a fast track to development. It was meant to be, geographically.

The traffic is even worse now that a tollway is being built through the city. We can only hope that once finished, it will relieve congestion. I’ll be among those drivers who will make good use of my EZ Tag. I don’t mind paying for speedy highway access as long as it’s speedy.

The city had a different look when that locomotive was being prepared to crash into the car. It was a safety demonstration by the railroad. Pearland was the perfect place to do it and not disrupt traffic flow too much.

What happened with the crash? The train rammed into a junk car at 30 MPH and demolished it. Debris flew all over the place. We stayed at a safe distance, but an unmanned Channel 13 camera near the tracks was wiped out.

A few minutes later, the regular flow of traffic resumed across the tracks, and I hurried to write my story about the event.

I miss you sometimes, old Pearland, but I also like some of your new look.

I wrote this column while waiting for the light to change at FM 518 and Hwy 288 - just kidding. It’s not that bad yet.