As safe as rail travel is, there are going to be accidents. That was even more true in the past when safety appliances and procedures were not as developed as they are today. Let’s go back to the early hours of April 6th, 1958 on the Norfolk and Western Railway. We’re at Sardinia, Ohio, it’s Easter morning and two N&W freight trains are heading toward each other.
Lead-up To The Accident
Train No. 94 was an eastbound freight train consisting of two diesel locomotives (units 800 and 813), 52 cars, and a caboose. It departed Clare, OH, at 12:32 am which was 31 minutes behind schedule. The traffic signals for No.94 permitted ‘Medium-approach’, which is defined as ‘one-half of maximum authorized speed, but not to exceed 30 miles per hour’. The brakeman called out the signal’s command and the train’s speed was reduced from 38 miles per hour to 21 miles per hour.
Train No. 99 was a westbound freight train consisting of three diesel locomotives (units 805, 799, and 817), 80 cars, and a caboose. It departed East Portsmouth at approximately 11:12pm on April 5th, which was approximately 78 minutes of schedule, and passed through Vera at 11:29, or 71 minutes ahead of schedule.
At approximately 2:00am the train dispatcher lined the routes for the trains and remotely adjusted the traffic signals. The routing called for the No. 94 train to the siding at the west switch at Sardinia while the No. 99 train was to proceed to traffic signal 72L, which had a ‘stop and stay’ command. Both the engineer and fireman claimed that the 74L signal showed a ‘clear’ signal until the locomotive passed it and it could no longer be seen. The train was going approximately 53 miles an hour when it passed the signal. The fireman said he saw the ‘Stop and Stay’ command on 72L when the signal was approximately 2000 feet away and notified the engineer who immediately applied the emergency brakes.
Accident, Injuries and Death
At approximately 2:05am, Train No. 99 sideswiped the No. 94 train at the fouling point for the siding and main tracks. At the time of the accident, Train No. 99 was traveling at approximately 47 miles per hour according to its speed tracking tape. The force of the impact caused the lead locomotive and first five cars of the No.99 to derail while the No. 94 saw its lead locomotive, first 12 cars, and the 54th-59th cars of the train derail.
Two people, the engineer and fireman on the No. 94 train, were killed in the accident. Five other crew members were injured: the front brakeman for the No. 94 train, as well as the engineer, fireman, front brakeman, and the flagman for the No. 99 train. A representative for the locomotive builder who was on the No.99 train also sustained injury.
Fuel tanks on the second unit for both locomotives were torn causing fuel to leak which became ignited. A total of 15 cars were destroyed, 10 were heavily damaged, and 3 were slightly less damaged but still damaged. Two other freight cars on auxiliary tracks in the area were also damaged.
The track itself was destroyed around the point of impact, as well as where the later cars in the No.99 train derailed. However, none of the traffic signals were damaged in the accident.
Two wood poles that were part of the signal and communication lines were destroyed as well as the power transmission line. Several other poles were damaged by the incident and lines supported by approximately 8 poles were torn down.
Investigation and Official Cause
An investigation into the accident was led by the Interstate Commerce Commision (ICC) which included interviews, review of the crash scene, and testing of traffic sensor equipment. Testing, which started the day of the accident, and continued until after the track was repaired, indicated no sign of failure or issue.
The focal point of the signal testing and questioning was with the 74L traffic signal. The traffic system was designed with safeguards in place so that signals are intertwined enough that they can be impacted by others, almost in a chain reaction way. In this situation, eastbound travel by the No. 94 train was established and the 72L signal indicated this. When 72L signaled eastbound movement, 72R automatically switched to ‘Stop and Stay’. When 72R switched to ‘stop and stay’, the signal for 74R should not signal anything ‘more favorable’ than ‘approach’. According to the engineer and fireman on the No. 99 train, 74R signalled ‘clear’ which would not be possible with the safeguards in place.
After taking about 5 months to investigate, the ICC released their investigation report dated September 22, 1958. After finding no evidence to indicate signal issues, they determined that the official cause of the accident was due to ‘failure to operate a westbound train in accordance with signal indications’, thus placing the blame on the No.99 train.
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