The follies of men: Two disasters wrapped in mystery

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 28, 2010

I’ve been delving into my stash of the government’s railroad accident reports. Most of them are mundane. By that, I mean they clearly document common safety shortcomings, such as trains striking maintenance of way equipment, forgetting orders to meet other trains, running into the rear of other trains, and on and on. Almost always the investigations clearly document what went wrong and why.
 
But every so often, investigators concluded that they don’t know why sometime terrible happened. I’m going to tell you about two such accidents. Anyone involved in railroad operations or interested in this fascinating-but-dangerous business would do well to learn from the mistakes of others.
 
At 3:15 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1951, a 15-car troop train left New Orleans on Kansas City Southern, hauled by two F units equipped with new induction-type radios. Accompanying the engineer, fireman, and head-end brakeman in the lead locomotive of Extra 51-A North was a trainmaster, a front-line supervisor.
 
The first southbound train the troop extra encountered was No. 9, a Kansas City-New Orleans passenger train due to leave Baton Rouge, La., at 5:30 a.m. Because this first-class train was on time (or close to it) that morning, Extra 51-A North was required to clear No. 9 five minutes before its scheduled time at a siding.
 
Instead, Extra 51-A North barreled past Essen, La., the first siding south of Baton Rouge, at 5:26 a.m. The trainmaster had radioed the train-order operator at North Baton Rouge that he intended to go to Baton Rouge for No. 9. Then, two miles south of Baton Rouge, the train made an abrupt stop. The trainmaster attempted to radio the engineer of No. 9, but could not hear the replies by No. 9’s engineer. So the trainmaster radioed the North Baton Rouge operator again, claiming his train had engine trouble and told the operator to instruct No. 9 to wait at Baton Rouge until his train arrived. The two trains met at 5:40 a.m. The engineer never asked for assistance with his supposedly malfunctioning locomotive.
 
So what seems to have happened is that the trainmaster used the new radio technology on KCS locomotives to play train dispatcher, in utter violation of the operating rules. His ad hoc method worked in meeting No. 9.
 
The next southbound train was No. 1, the six-car Southern Belle. It, too, was on time, so once again Extra 51-A North was required to be clear of the main track five minutes before No. 1’s scheduled time. But that didn’t happen. The troop train passed Lettsworth, La., about 7 a.m., six minutes after No. 1 was due to leave the next station north of that point, and 1.6 miles north of Lettsworth, struck No. 1 head-on at a speed of 40 mph; No. 1’s speed was 55 mph.
 
All six people in the locomotives of both trains died in the collision, as did the conductor of Extra 51-A North and six passengers of that train. So it became impossible to sort out the facts. The Interstate Commerce Commission investigator reported that various employees heard unidentified persons calling Extra 51-A North and No. 1 on the radio. But nobody heard ensuing conversations, if any ever occurred. The investigation concluded that the accident’s cause was Extra 51-A North’s occupying the main track on the time of No. 1 without protection. It’s the why that will forever remain a mystery. Reading between the lines of this report, you sense that the investigator felt that the trainmaster was again playing train dispatcher without the dispatcher’s knowledge, but this time with tragic consequences.
 
You can find that report at http://ntl1.specialcollection.net/scripts/ws.dll?websearch&site=dot_railroads. Click on 1951 and then on the second Texas & Pacific listing. KCS operated on T&P-owned track at the site of the accident, although KCS dispatched the line segment.
 
Now go to Jan. 23, 1958. Colorado & Southern’s Extra 700D North left Utah Junction in Denver at 6:15 a.m., en route to Cheyenne, Wyo., with 4 F units and a 52-car train. Coming against it, only a minute or two late, was passenger train No. 30 from Billings, Mont. The train dispatcher chose not to set a meeting point between the trains, so Extra 700D North was required to clear No. 30 five or more minutes before the passenger train was scheduled past a siding.
 
Surviving crew members of the freight said later that they expected their train to clear No. 30 at Semper, Colo., 5.7 miles north of Utah Junction. The fireman said that near Utah Junction he asked the engineer where they would take siding but got no satisfactory answer. The engineer made a service application of the brakes approaching Semper, then released them and continued on, passing the south siding switch at 6:38 a.m., or 15 minutes before No. 30’s scheduled time. Quoting the accident report: “The fireman said he immediately warned the engineer that they should have taken siding at Semper. The engineer replied that they had sufficient time.” A crew member radioed from the caboose, asking where their train would clear No. 30. The engineer replied they would go to Broomfield, five miles north of Semper.
 
The fireman said he continued to warn the engineer that they would not clear Broomfield before No. 30’s 6:47 a.m. time, and was ignored. The conductor testified that he radioed the engineer instructions to stop their train at once and provide flag protection for the front of the train. The engineer did not comply. Thinking he may have overlooked something in their train orders, the conductor reread them. Finding nothing, he radioed the engineer as their train approached Broomfield that he would set the brakes from the caboose. At the time, Extra 700D North was passing the south siding switch of Broomfield without stopping. As the conductor was about to activate his brake valve, the two trains collided near the Broomfield depot, the passenger train doing 20 mph and the freight 30.
 
Both occupants of the cab of No. 30 were killed, as was the engineer of Extra 700D North. The ICC concluded that the collision occurred because the inferior train occupied the main track on the time of a superior train. But again, you’re left to wonder why.
 
I’ve reread this report numerous times over the years. What was the engineer really thinking? Given the repeated warnings by other crew members and his evasive or nonchalant replies — and given that he didn’t even slow his train as it came to the place he said he would take the siding — I can only conclude that he wished to die. Read the report yourself and reach your own conclusion. At http://ntl1.specialcollection.net/scripts/ws.dll?websearch&site=dot_railroads, click on 1958 and then the second C&S listing.
 
Beginning in 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and later, the National Transportation Safety Board, took over accident investigations from the ICC. You’ll find NTSB reports at the link listed above, and at http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/R_Acc.htm. Today, DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration also issues reports on railroad accidents; go to http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1696 and http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/. — Fred W. Frailey

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