Fast Trains and Big Wrecks

spain1downloadSo the Spanish managed to wreck a train quite thoroughly the other day. I actually don’t know anymore about it than you do but let’s look at it a bit. Looking at that picture, it seems to me that it was just plain going fast enough that the wheels couldn’t keep it on the track. That could mean that a flange jumped, a truck broke or anything that held it on the track let go. It looks for all the world like a car in a rear end skid though.


The one thing those all have in common is this:

Speed kills.

There is a limit, I don’t know what it is, but there is a limit to the speed that is safe for a standard gauge carset, and it’s lower in a curve, where the centrifugal forces are trying to turn it over. That didn’t happen here though, it came off the track upright rather than rolling over. But let’s take a look at the track plan here.


That’s a pretty sharp curve, and notice it came unglued pretty much in the middle of the curve. I don’t know how fast he was running but, most of the stories I’ve heard say he was going pretty fast, which of course trains like this are designed to do. But I’d bet this is just about the steepest curve on the system.

And there is something else here I think. It’s a bad train wreck, and no mistake but, it’s a worse train wreck because of that retaining wall. Coming sideways at that at say 100 mph and slamming to a stop in 1.2 seconds or so, I suspect was worse than coming off the rails.

In my work on power lines we’ve always said (so do paratroopers, by the way) that it’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop to the fall that hurts. That applies here too.

Was he running too fast? Most likely. Does that make him responsible? Yep But what (if any) other pressures was he under, trying to make up time to get back on schedule, or texting his girlfriend? I don’t know and it matters.

A Comparable Accident

On 19 April 1940, the westbound New York Central Lake Shore Limited wrecked at Little Falls, NY, killing 31 people

Lake Shore Limited Wreck

Lake Shore Limited Wreck

From the write up at The Historical Marker Database

After extensive investigation the “official” cause was listed as excessive speed. The Gulf Curve in Little Falls was the sharpest curve on the New York Central at 7 degrees, 24 minutes in 856 feet. The mandatory speed limit through the curve was 45 mph. The Lake Shore Limited had left Albany 21 minutes late and was running late. Besides Engineer Jesse Earl and Fireman J.Y. Smith, Road Foreman of Engines Andrew Bayreuther was riding in the cab. Earl had braked before the curve and Bayreuther didn’t think it was enough. The train entered the curve at 59 mph. It was reported that Earl suddenly closed the throttle, causing all the momentum of the train to shove the engine off the track into a rock wall. Fireman Smith was thrown out of the cab and died instantly. Earl died several hours after the wreck, trapped in the cab. Thirty one passengers died as well.

Quite a few commentators have said that if Earl hadn’t closed the throttle, there would have been a pretty good chance of making it through the curve but the momentum of the train (and it was a pretty big and heavy train) shoved the front end into the rock wall. Again we have the sudden stop at the end that contributed to the casualty count.

The cause of the accident was excessive speed, that means it was purely human error, specifically Engineer Earl’s, although undoubtedly Road Foreman of Engines Bayreuther who was Earl’s superior would have shared in the blame. (The write up doesn’t say). American railroads in that era were very proud of the on time record of their senior trains which the Lake Shore Limited was. It was second only to The Twentieth Century Limited and so there was pressure to make up the time they had lost.

But civil engineers can fix things sometimes, after the war the Central decided to fix this one. They spent about $2.5 million (in late 40s dollars) realigning the grade, which included rerouting the Mohawk River. Here is what it looked like.

LFRER1 (21)

You can see a train on the new alignment, and just how sharp the old alignment was, and why management would consider that to be a contributory factor in the wreck, and how this fixed it. In truth when you ride the Lake Shore, you barely notice the curve.

So we can see how in both cases it was the speed that caused the accident (pure human error) but engineering factors made the accident far worse than it would have to have been. Of course, in a perfect world, it would all be tangent track.

All Aboard

About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

6 Responses to Fast Trains and Big Wrecks

  1. Freedom, by the way says:

    OK. Now I have to google “Tangent Track”. 🙂


    • NEO says:

      Ooops, sorry!! That would be straight track. 🙂


      • Freedom, by the way says:

        Geez. You can tell I didn’t do too well in geometry. I do recall that terminology now.


        • NEO says:

          Well, that term had no place in this post, sure that’s what I call it (and part of that is because my BIL is a Civil and I’m a model railroader but, I need to keep the jargon out. Thanks, Freedom. 🙂


        • Freedom, by the way says:

          No no, no. Keep writing as you are. There are too many news sources and bloggers that dumb down their writing to the lowest common denominator. While we don’t want to cram posts with too many high-fluting words, making a reader pause (and perhaps learn a new term) is awesome. We’ve gotten way too lazy.


        • NEO says:

          That’s true as well. My point on tangent track is that it was [ahh] tangential to the story. My vocabulary in posts won’t change simply because the right term is the right term, most synonyms mean something close, not precisely what I meant.

          And you’re right, we are getting lazy, too may using penny words to almost, but not quite, describe nickel concepts.


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