Fifty years of the NTSB

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, April 03, 2017

The National Transportation Safety Board opened for business 50 years ago, on April 1, 1967. The first railroad accident the NTSB investigated occurred seven weeks later, when two NYC trains collided head-on at 147th Street on the West Side freight line in New York City. Photographer Dick Hovey was there to record the clean-up.
In a season when everyone, it seems, has a problem with some aspect of the U.S. government, it might seem foolhardy to hold up a federal agency as an object of near-unanimous respect, even admiration.

But I’m going to do that anyway, because this week marks the 50th anniversary of the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB opened for business on April 1, 1967, after years of preparation by legions of politicians, bureaucrats, and transportation professionals, all with a goal of creating a truly independent accident investigation agency.

I don’t think there is much debate that they succeeded. Say what you will about specific accident reports or particular NTSB conclusions, but as a whole its work is authoritative. My colleague Don Phillips, Trains columnist and transportation reporter par excellence, puts it in perspective.

“No other government agency is as close to being beloved as the NTSB,” he says. “It has no power over any form of transportation, but airlines, railroads, trucking companies, and other forms know they must pay attention to everything the NTSB says following an accident.”

For those of us who follow railroading, I think we tend to consider the NTSB a contemporary phenomenon, an icon of the era of Amtrak, Conrail, the Staggers Act, and the mega-mergers that began forming in the 1990s and continue today. So what’s the NTSB got to do with Classic Trains?

In fact, the agency’s birthday reaches back to a time, albeit briefly, before all that stuff was new. When the NTSB opened for business on that Saturday in 1967, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania remained separate railroads. The Santa Fe still ran the Super Chief every night from Chicago and Los Angeles. Great Northern was introducing its Big Sky Blue image and John W. Barriger III was president of the Katy.

The NTSB hadn’t been functioning for long when it was obligated to investigate its first major railroad accident, a grievous wreck on the NYC on Manhattan’s upper west side.

On the beautiful morning of May 22, 1967, two NYC freight trains collided head-on near 147th Street on what was then known as the West 30th Street Branch, a line still used today by Amtrak passenger trains moving in and out of Penn Station toward Albany and the west. The toll was awful: six railroaders killed and three more injured. (The line was the subject of Jim Shaughnessy's article in Winter 2016 Classic Trains.)

The trains involved included 1/NY-4, a 15-car train coming in from Syracuse behind three diesels, and ND-5, a 60-car westbound train heading up the Hudson River behind four units. They collided on main track 1, being used in both directions that morning to accommodate repairs being made to track 2.

Photos taken that day show carnage that’s almost unimaginable given the location, with its beautiful frontage on the Hudson and its clear visibility up and down the right of way. Locomotives and cars are scattered across a wide area, some of them, including a rider coach, launched into various frightening angles. Clearly visible are some of the seven locomotives destroyed or damaged, including, by one account, five Alcos: an RS3, two FB2s, and FA2, and an RS32. Other units in the crash were a GP35 and a U30B.

What struck me about the scene is that the cleanup is utterly old-school, before companies like Hulcher would later move in with an army of heavy-duty, highway-borne bulldozers and cranes. The main tools of the trade at 147th Street are two wreck trains, complete with “big hook” derricks and heavyweight crew cars.

In a pattern that would become familiar, the NTSB hunkered down for a long investigation, finally issuing a 37-page report on October 9, 1969. The document is a template for all the NTSB reports to follow, notable for their thoroughness and their matter-of-fact treatment of difficult truths.

The agency lays the blame on NYC’s operator at 72nd Street (DO Tower) for failing to restrict the movement of train ND-5, but also notes related mistakes by the dispatcher as well as an operator at Spuyten Duyvil (DV). Most of all (my emphasis), investigators cited the New York Central for “failure . . . to establish explicit boundaries of authority, explicit operating rules, and procedures to insure that its personnel are instructed in and comply with [the] rules.”  

There’s no happy ending in such matters. The accident at 147th Street was a tragic reminder of the dangers inherent in railroading. But in accordance with its most important charge, NTSB recommended a number of changes that presumably made a difference down the road. You have to read between the lines, but I detect some bafflement by investigators over some of NYC’s long-standing operating practices, something a lot of railroads shared in 1967:

“The investigation also identified ineffective organization, inadequate use of modern communications devices (such as radio telephone), and a lack of application of modern techniques such as the use of human-factors engineering in designing operators’ control stations.” 

Meanwhile, today the NTSB moves into its second half-century, its sterling reputation intact and its recommendations presumably making the transportation world safer for all of us. “Dealing with the NTSB was a joy,” says Don Phillips. “I could trust everything they said.”

(View the entire NTSB report on the collision at: https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/RAR1967A.pdf)

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