The railroad in America is still king. Just ask the Chico City Council. This week the council agenda included this entry: “Consideration of recent Union Pacific Railroad train speed increases through Chico.” Union Pacific, which purchased the operation from Southern Pacific in 1995, has been raising its speed limit in recent years. Southern came through town at 25 mph—Union is allowing some freight trains to hustle through at 70 mph. Turns out the UPRR can do pretty much as it pleases. Representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration told the council so this week. “We neither support nor not support” the increased speed limit, said one of the two FRA folks who responded to the council’s invitation to come to the meeting. “We can’t tell the railroad how to run their business.”

The railroad’s freedom from regulation stems from the Interstate Commerce Act from the 19th century, which said local jurisdictions could not dictate railroad business. This was to help the trains serve a growing nation. The nation, of course, continued to grow, and now cities like Chico have residents—in this case mostly students—squeezed right up against the tracks. In fact, last year Union Pacific weighed in on the merits of a proposed student apartment complex that was eventually taken off the table by its promoters. The railroad said trains and students are not a good mix and so the apartment shouldn’t be built. Apparently the railroad folks don’t value quite as much the lives of students living in existing apartments near the tracks. The railroad folks admitted all sorts of hazardous material comes through Chico at blinding speeds, but so do the basic chemicals of the products we use every day, like the plastic that makes our telephones. Chico, they were saying, owes it to the rest of the country not to squawk about fast trains. It is the shifting of speeds, they added, that causes accidents, not the speed itself.

We had a little excitement this week. A letter purportedly from the Animal Liberation Front was placed under our welcome mat. Presumably this was done soon after the same person or persons set some crude incendiary device behind McDonald’s on Mangrove and spray painted anti-meat slogans. A few of us here at the News & Review—including myself and Calendar Editor John Young—touched the damn letter before turning it over to the Chico police. A few hours later, the FBI showed up. When Kim Pozar the receptionist called me to say there were a couple of G-men in the lobby wanting to talk with me, my initial reaction was to bolt out the window. I instead invited the men—Special Agent Chad T. Coulter and Yolo County DA Bruce Naliboff—into my office.

“Am I a suspect here?” I kept wondering as Special Agent Coulter and Investigator Naliboff ran through their good cop-cop-bad-cop routine. (There is not a single cell of humor in Coulter’s body.) At one point Young, recounting the events leading up to his discovery of the letter, recalled smelling potatoes from Morning Thunder Café, which sits across the street and over the bridge from the News & Review. The agents’ brows creased simultaneously. “Morning Thunder?” Naliboff asked. “It’s a great breakfast spot right over there,” I said, pointing out the window. “Oh, I’m hungry,” Naliboff said, rubbing his stomach. I immediately thought of Special Agent Dale Cooper, the pie-eating, coffee-swilling special agent from David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks. The mood lightened. But up to that point, I was ready to offer an alibi if it came down to that. “Hey,” I would have said as they slapped the cuffs on me and hustled me out of my office, “I ate two hot-dogs last night!”

Speaking of hotdogs, the Chico City Council … Wait, that’s a poor transition. Let’s start again. Sitting innocuously on this week’s City Council consent agenda was a request from the university, acting on behalf of the Associated Students Food Services, that the city “abandon and vacate” a section of West First Avenue at Ivy Street. The A.S. wants to take over the strip of sidewalk so it can kick Crazy Dog food vendor John Geiger off that little area not controlled by the university. Councilmembers want to hear the A.S. explain how its request is anything short of trying to monopolize student food options.