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The Malbone Street Wreck, also known as the Brighton Beach Line Accident of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), was a rapid transit railroad accident that occurred November 1, 1918, beneath the intersection of Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Avenue, and Malbone Street, in the community of Flatbush, Brooklyn. At least 93 individuals perished, making it one of the most deadly train crashes in United States history (Cudahy 1999).
The wreck occurred the evening of November 1, 1918 at 6:22PM, during the last days of World War I. An elevated train, consisting of five cars constructed primarily of wood, entered the tunnel portal beneath Malbone Street, negotiating a curve designated to be taken at six miles per hour (9.6 km/h) at a speed estimated at between 30 and 40 mph (48-65 km/h). The trailing truck of the first car derailed, and the two following cars completely left the tracks, tearing off their left-hand sides and most of their roofs. The first and fourth cars sustained relatively minor damage, while the second and third cars were severely damaged, the third so badly that it was dismantled on the spot. The fifth suffered no damage at all. The motorman was not injured, and left the scene of the accident.
Contributing causes of the WreckEdit
The Malbone Street Wreck was not caused by any single event or failure, but a series of individual circumstances, the omission of any one of which might have prevented the accident or at least reduced its severity.
The BLE StrikeEdit
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), representing some of the motormen operating elevated trains of the BRT, went on strike from the company on the morning of November 1 over issues involving union organization and the discharge from employment of a number of BLE members. This created a shortage of motormen to operate the system.
The train operator, then known as the motorman, was Edward Luciano, a crew dispatcher with light experience operating elevated trains, who was pressed into service during the strike emergency. He had never operated an elevated train in passenger service before. He was not familiar with the Brighton Beach Line, and his only experience moving trains was parking non-revenue trains in a train yard a year earlier. He had been taken over the line earlier by a motorman-instructor as part of his two hours of training prior to the disaster. Normally a motorman in that era received sixty hours of training before being allowed to control a revenue generating train.
The speed of the trainEdit
The train was operating at a speed of at least 30 mph where it should have been operated at 6 mph or less in the section of track it was in when it derailed. The motorman stated that he had attempted to slow the train during his interrogation, but the subsequent investigation of the wreck indicated that no attempt to engange the emergency brake had been made and that he had not attempted to reverse the train's motors. Witnesses interviewed by the New York Times also stated that the train had not slowed approaching or in the S curve until the cars left the tracks.
The single-track tunnel in which the wreck occurred had been opened only weeks prior to the accident. It consisted of a sharp reverse curve designed to take Coney Island-bound trains of the Brighton Beach Line around a new mainline which was then under construction. Previously, these trains entered Prospect Park through an older tunnel, which provided a straighter direct route.
The makeup of the trainEdit
The train consisted of three motor cars and two trailer cars. The motor cars were about twice as heavy as the trailer cars, and the trailers were significantly more top-heavy, especially with a passenger load. Standard procedure was to never couple two trailer cars together, but to always have a single trailer between two motor cars. The heavier motor cars provided stability for the lighter trailers. In the Malbone Street wreck train, two trailers were coupled together, and it was these two cars that sustained the bulk of the damage, both physical and human.
Without certain of the elements above, the wreck would probably not have happened at all. If the BLE strike had not occurred, Luciano would not have been assigned to that train. A BRT official had the tired Luciano take out that additional train run after he had served a full shift. If the train had not been improperly made up, the wreck might still have occurred, but would probably have been significantly less severe in terms of damage and the loss of life.
The BLE struck, but they were entitled to do so. They did not represent all the motormen on the BRT, and there was no realistic claim of sabotage against them.
The BRT tried to keep service running with non-striking personnel, which included men in other unions, including the company union as well as other personnel, and made the decision to use Luciano, a crew dispatcher. There is no report that he had made other mistakes prior to the accident, though he had to negotiate difficult conditions, including other sharp curves and running on the street where other traffic and pedestrians would have added to operating hazards. He was switched onto the wrong line at the junction prior to the final approach to the tunnel, but that was due to his train lacking proper signals to inform the switch tower operator which route the train was to take. Luciano had to reverse his train in order to take the proper route, but this was done "by the book" without further incident.
In the present day, a struck transit system ordinarily closes down in an orderly fashion until the strike is resolved, but the BRT would likely have been more criticized for not attempting to keep the system running, absent the accident.
The New York City administration of Mayor John F. Hylan, and the mayor personally, placed blame on the BRT, bringing both Luciano and company officials to trial for manslaughter. All the defendants were acquitted or had the indictments eventually dropped, except that one official was not retried after a hung jury.
Because of the prosecutorial focus, which required the BRT to present a coherent defense on behalf of both its officials and Luciano, the proximate cause of the wreck, the excessive speed of the train, has never been adequately explained. Luciano testified on his own behalf, contending that he was in control of the train, but the train didn't respond properly, a claim belied by the BRT's own physical examination of the equipment, which showed that the brakes were in good operating order, were not placed in "emergency" application, and that other means of slowing or stopping the train, such as reversing the motors, had not been done. Since his defense focused on these contentions, other issues that could have caused him to operate the train at speed were not examined, such as his state of mind, a desire to make up time because of the earlier switching problems or his understanding of the route on which he was operating.
The accident placed more pressure on the BRT to remove wooden equipment from routes that operated through tunnel sections or in subways, though this use was already limited, and though the fact, in itself, that the cars were structurally made of wood may not have affected the severity of the accident. That notwithstanding, wooden cars returned to use in the tunnel for another nine years, and cars of partial wooden construction remained in elevated service until 1969.
Additional safety devices were added to the subway and elevated system over the years, including more effective dead-man's controls to halt runaway trains, and signalling and automatic trackside devices called trippers or train stops to reduce the likelihood of trains operating too fast for conditions.
The three motorized cars involved in the wreck, 725, 726 and 1064, were repaired and returned to service. The severely damaged trailers, 80 and 100, were demolished.
The Malbone Street tunnel in which the wreck occurred continued in daily passenger operation for 40 years, although it was no longer part of the main line after 1920. The tunnel today is part of the BMT Franklin Avenue Line and is used occasionally for special moves.
In the wake of the tragedy, Malbone Street was renamed to avoid bad connotations with the name. Malbone Street was changed to Empire Boulevard, a name it still bears today.
Similar accidents involving sudden very sharp curves include:
- Morpeth rail crash - England
- Rosedale train crash - Australia
- Waterfall train disaster - Australia
- Amagasaki rail crash - Japan (2005)
- Review of book about Malbone Street wreck
- Account of the Malbone Street wreck by www.nycsubway.org, including contemporary stories from New York Times
- Cudahy, Brian (1999). The Malbone Street Wreck, New York: Fordham University Press.