THE TRAIN FROM HELL!
You might not even know they were there except for the three innocuous signs spaced a few miles apart along southbound Interstate 15 in Southern Nevada. They identify three little known and slightly mysterious places called Apex, Arrolime and Garnet. It’s not as if they’re alien landing pads or anything like that, just harmless little stops along the way that most drivers hardly notice.
So why is it that when we pass those signs my heartbeat goes into overdrive, my palms start sweating and I get the urge to go (if you get my meaning)? It’s because those signs are telling me we are closing in on Las Vegas and pretty soon we will be taking a ride on the dreaded . . . Train from Hell!
If we’re driving a car on a Las Vegas freeway, as opposed to let’s say a motorhome, things can be pretty ho-hum. Like driving on any other big city freeway.
We know from studies for example that drivers on city freeways behave in much the same way everywhere. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy. So we have learned to compensate for that by making survival our principal goal.
We know that freeway drivers enjoy sports and are very competitive. We’ve learned this by studying the concrete medians which were originally painted white but are now covered with black tire marks where drivers have competed to see who can crash into them the hardest or jump over them the highest.
The local media is supportive and likes to participate in these events. On the car radio our friendly traffic reporter routinely boasts, “Good news folks, only nine wrecks and seven fatalities to report at this two o’clock hour but, not to worry, with any luck we’ll make it to an even dozen by commute time.”
Yes, freeway driving in a car can be pretty boring. But, we’re not in a car! We’re driving a motor home with a car in tow which measure roughly fifty-five feet in total length and together weigh about 24 thousand pounds. The other drivers around you have no clue. Unless one has handled one of these, one has no idea the skill it takes to navigate a rig like this in heavy traffic. Get on a freeway with one of these things and the whole game changes.
Now we’re not just another car. We are a target, or at least it seems that way when we’re driving through Vegas! It’s as if a silent message just surged through the crowd. “C’mon, everybody, let’s harass this guy and see if we can run him off the road.”
So, why are we here in the first place? Well, usually we’re here because we’re on our way to Laughlin, Lake Havasu, maybe Palm Springs or some other place in that general direction and, the trouble is, there is no way to get there without going through Vegas. Well, there are other ways but most are longer and out of the way. Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against Las Vegas. Been there and done that many times. No, it’s not the town . . . it’s them dag-nabbed, rattle-brained suicidal drivers!
The Train from Hell begins for us on southbound Interstate 15 where it passes the Las Vegas Motor Speedway about twelve miles north of downtown. It’s an appropriate place to begin because at this point the interstate looks a lot like the start at the Indy 500 just as the pace car peels off. This is where inbound traffic starts to rev up and I begin asking myself, “Do I really want to do this again?”
And, have you noticed? The time of day doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I’m from Los Angeles. When people used to ask me the best time to drive through L.A., I would casually tell them, “Oh, just stay outa there between, um, roughly seven and ten AM and maybe between four PM and seven.” But, now it’s bumper to bumper all over the world no matter what the time of day. Doesn’t anybody work anymore?!!
Anyway, The Train from Hell is now taking us into downtown Vegas where things start getting dicey. No pun intended there, I would not joke about a thing like this. We’re coming up on this thing they call “the spaghetti bowl” which is a cleverly designed tangled nightmare of on and off ramps which lead to places like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Reno and who knows where else (I can’t take my eyes away from the road long enough to look). From here on its pretty much close your eyes, grit your teeth and hope for the best. The ramps are about three feet wide here and have advisory speed limits of twenty-five miles per hour because of the tight curves which of course make people drive faster! Oh, I almost forgot. This interchange is always under construction, has been for the last twenty years.
Now comes the really fun part. Are you ready? We are now obliged to merge onto another freeway called the “515”. This is where I mutter a hopeful silent prayer that we can pull this off one more time without crashing. You see, the merging area goes uphill so, after slowing to the obligatory 25 mph on the crossover, there’s no way in hell we can get up to traffic speed which is about 1200 miles an hour, in time to merge safely. Believe me, you do not want to go here with a heavy rig unless you have more guts than brains and your car insurance (and life insurance) is paid up.
If we somehow manage to pull this off without death and destruction and there’s not a wreck up ahead to bring everything to a halt, which the city arranges at least a couple of times a day (at no charge), the Train from Hell will be smokin’ along on the 515 at its usual pace of whatever they can get away with, which believe me is never even close to the speed limit. The kamikazes, usually young guys in massive high rise pickups (sometimes old guys) will be flashing past at full throttle working hard to blow you away with their prop wash. The woman behind will be following so close we can see the spinach in her teeth and the locals will make it clear immediately that nobody (and I mean NOBODY!) is about to give any room to this idiot foreigner who is dumb enough to be here in the first place, especially with that stupid motorhome getting in everybody’s way! I’m gripping the wheel so hard now it’s trying to bite me.
Everyone knows how dangerous it is but for some reason drivers tend to bunch up on freeways. It’s so common we have a name for it. We call these wolf packs. Typically there will be a quarter mile or so between wolf packs but The Train from Hell is not your everyday wolf pack. It’s a World Class wolf pack with zero space in any direction! If anyone has a problem in this nightmare close order drill, like a blow-out or loss of control, the result will be total disaster. There’s no telling how many other cars and drivers will be involved and there are going to be fatalities. Stay out of wolf packs!
Here’s something else to think about when you find yourself on one of these Trains from Hell. If you are driving at just 45 mph and you have normal unimpaired reaction time, your brakes and tires are in good condition and you’re stopping on dry, level concrete your stopping distance is 150 feet. We’re talking about half the length of a football field. Are you listening? Half the length of a football field!
Keeping this in mind, imagine now that you are not in your car but in your motor home or towing your fifth wheel and your speed is not 45 but 65 or 70 miles per hour. What will your stopping distance be now? Are you listening? Keep your speed reasonable and do not tailgate! It breaks my heart to see those toy haulers and boat trailers screaming by at 80-85 mph, sometimes faster, and I just know there are kids in there! You don’t want to know what you look like if you leave the road at those speeds! And, if you know anything about fuel efficiency, you know that anything over 65 is just wasting that very expensive fuel anyway with no gain in efficiency. If you want to get there sooner . . . leave sooner!
Back on the Train from Hell we clench our teeth and endure the insanity until the 515 mercifully ends near Henderson. Then we ease onto Highway 95 near Railroad Pass. After a while we start breathing normally again. Next stop: Needles and a little taste of good old Route 66!
This is not about how to drive. This is about staying alive. See you next time . . . I hope!