World's stupidest train crew

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Over time, I’ve probably read 10,001 railroad accident reports. Virtually all come down to mechanical failure, the elements, or one person’s poor judgment or incompetence. Very, very few involve the stupidity of an entire five-person train crew. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the doozy of them all. Come with me down memory lane and relive the Night of the Big Sleep.

We’re on the Rock Island Lines in Oklahoma, on the Memphis, Tenn.-Tucumcari, N.M., route. Extra 1301 West leaves the crew-change town of El Reno at 2:30 a.m. with three GP7-type road-switchers, three cars, and a caboose. A train order it receives in El Reno contains waiting times by No. 994, a superior eastbound freight. The crew of Extra 1301 West determines that it must take the siding at Bridgeport, Okla., to let No. 994 pass. It enters the siding at Bridgeport at 3:45 a.m. and stops. Then, except for the flagman in the caboose, the entire five-man crew promptly falls asleep.

At 5:25 a.m., the peaceful slumber of the engineer is interrupted by a snatch of unintelligible conversation on the train radio. He looks at the train order he received in El Reno. It says that No. 994 will wait at Bridgeport until 4:30 a.m. for his train. Almost an hour beyond that time has gone by. He assumes that the voice on the radio is that of his conductor, telling him 994 has passed and to leave the siding. So the engineer wakes up the head-end brakeman and tells him to line the siding switch so they can depart. The brakeman doesn’t think 994 has passed, but neither he nor the just-awakened fireman question the engineer’s instruction.

Meanwhile, back in the caboose, the conductor wakes up as his train begins to move. Has 994 passed, he asked the flagman? Nope, replies the flagman, who has remained awake the entire time. Then the engineer must have gotten a new train order over the radio advancing their train up the line against the superior train, says the conductor, who decides not to question what is going on.

Now let’s stop and review matters. If you fall asleep in a locomotive on a pleasant June evening, with the windows or doors open, don’t you think you’d hear a 102-car train rumble by? No? Then wouldn’t you want to confer with the other four crew members before taking a leap into the unknown? In the locomotive, you have a train radio but it cannot transmit — just receive. There is no radio in the caboose. Yet the caboose is only three cars behind the locomotive. How hard can it be to instruct the brakeman to walk back a few hundred feet to ask the conductor and flagman what they know? Or (if you’re the conductor) to tell the flagman to walk to the locomotive and get a copy of that train order you think the engineer received over the radio? Of course, you can also walk to the phone booth at the end of the siding and ask the dispatcher about the location of 994, but that would reveal you had been inattentive to duty.

So at 5:30 a.m., the flagman relines the switch for the main line and the conductor waves a highball with his lantern as Extra 1301 West leaves Bridgeport. It goes another 4.3 miles before rounding a curve and seeing the headlight of No. 994 coming toward it from only 300 feet away. All that prevents multiple deaths is a 15-mph slow order in affect at the point of collision. It’s as if God has decided to spare the lives of these feckless railroaders so that they can answer to mortal men for their gross stupidity.

That’s the story of the Night of the Big Sleep. I’ve never read an account of an accident that’s quite like this. Have you?

By the way, if you’d like to read about the foibles of men and machinery, the library of Interstate Commerce Commission railroad accident reports from 1911 to 1994 is available online at W. Frailey

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