One month later, Amtrak 501 offers one encouraging takeaway

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Thursday, January 18, 2018

November 1, 1918, found the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company in a tough spot. Competent train crews were in short supply due to World War I, thankfully to draw to a very welcome close within a fortnight. The Spanish Flu epidemic cut a swath through all walks and further culled the numbers of available transportation workers. That particular morning brought a more industry-specific challenge: The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which represented the crews operating the company's elevated trains, voted to go on strike. The BRT’s crew shortages reached a critical mass, and if the day’s trains were to run as scheduled, the company had no other choice than to press employees working in other departments into emergency train service.

One of those men was Edward Luciano. Though Luciano had amassed a few hours running trains as he learned to become a dispatcher, he had no experience on the elevated train to Coney Island that became his emergency assignment. Allowing a man with such little experience to passenger trains would have been a questionable decision under the best of circumstances but, on November 1, 1918, it was a catastrophic one.

Passengers on the train noted that Luciano seemed to be going quite a bit faster than normal--at least thirty miles an hour--and assumed that he was trying to make up for lost time after the train had accidentally been switched onto the wrong track a few minutes before. Some went as far as to wonder if the operator had lost control of the train. In the end it made little different. Luciano sped past a sign warning operators that to slow down ahead of the sharp curve ahead of the Malbone Street tunnel. It was designed to navigated at no more than six miles an our. Luciano made no attempt to reduce the train's speed before the curve, and failed to even apply the emergency brake when the train entered the curve at 6:42 in the evening.

The derailment that inevitably followed invoked kinetics at their cruelest. The first motor coach traveled into the tunnel relatively unscathed, but the second--made of wood and packed wall to wall with rush-hour traffic--derailed and turned sideways so it sat perpendicular across the mouth of the tunnel. The rest of the train continued to move forward and smashed through the first coach’s hull, tearing it and all of the passengers within completely to pieces. Two other coaches turned on their side and were badly damaged. Only the last two coaches in the train remained upright and on the tracks.  When all was done, ninety three people had lost their lives.

Exactly one month after the derailment of Amtrak 501 in Washington State, the preliminary investigation shows a set of circumstances that bears a haunting similarity to the Malbone Disaster: A newly opened stretch of tracks, a driver who lacked in-depth experience on that particular route, and excessive speed heading into a sharp curve. The one area in which the two disasters thankfully differ is in the death count.

Celebrating that incidents like the wreck of the 501 claim so few lives can feel insensitive to the handful of people that did lose their lives, but the fact that most modern rail disasters in the United States keep their death count to the single digits is no accident.  

The sight of passenger cars rolled down embankments and twisted in on themselves makes a poor backdrop to discuss the incredible effort railroad companies, equipment manufacturers, and other entities have expended to make the riders as safe as possible.

By far, the biggest improvement specific to passenger rail is that we have learned to build railroad equipment better. By 2017, railroad designers understand how to build coaches out of the strongest possible materials and have developed other life-saving innovations, like crumple zones and fire-resistant materials.


The simple act of building coaches completely out of metal saved countless lives. Early rolling stock, including those used in the Malbone disaster, were made of wood, which offered very poor structural integrity in the case of a collision or derailment.  Wooden coaches were particularly prone to "telescoping" train wrecks, a particularly horrific type of wreck in which the forces of a wreck is violent enough to slam one piece of equipment inside of another. Telescoping incidents tend to have a particularly high death count— in modern times,many of the twenty five deceased in the 2008 Chatsworth collision occurs when the first coach partially telescoped into the Metrolink locomotive.

Many news outlets carried stories of 501 passengers escaping the wreckage by kicking emergency windows out of their frames. As rail travel became established, the transportation was surprisingly slow to realize that there should be alternative methods of entry and exit in case the doors become impassable. The lack of emergency exits was a contributing factor to the Malbone disaster: Some passengers were  trampled to death in the overturned coaches as panicked passengers attempted to climb to the windows to escape, and many other 19th-century wrecks claimed horrific death tolls when the wreckage caught on fire while passengers were still trapped inside.

Circumstances like these accounted for Amtrak's deadliest wreck to date in September 1993, after the Sunset Limited derailed in Alabama on bridge that had been struck by a barge and damaged. Several coaches fell into the water, others caught fire after the locomotives' fuel tanks ruptured. Forty seven people died in the incident, but with more than more than 220 on board, the numbers could have climbed even higher had emergency exits been unavailable. Emergency exits are also critical to allowing first responders inside to treat and remove wounded passengers.

Other advances in railroading and in general have helped to prevent the kind of death toll that was once common in wrecks like the Malbone disaster. Better communication has cut down on the  number of wrecks that occurred because train crews misread their orders or dispatchers misrouted trains. Improved building materials and techniques in all sectors decreased failure of bridges and other aspects of critical infrastructures. Emergency services have likewise become more adept in responding to mass casualty events, especially in the post 9/11 world.

There are still areas in which rail safety stands to be improved. The 501 derailment is exactly the sort that a yet-to-be implemented positive train control system is designed to prevent, and many observers of the industry cite fatigued crews as a potential contributor to deadly incidents. Despite this, accidents like the one in Washington show that hard-earned safety improvements are doing their job.

First two images: Malbone St. Disaster. Third: Wreck of the Royal Palm and Ponce de Leone, 1926

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