1991 Union Square derailment
The damaged R62 car at the site of the accident
|Date||August 28, 1991|
|Location||North of 14th Street–Union Square|
|Rail line||IRT Lexington Avenue Line|
|Operator||New York City Transit Authority|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Intoxication, driver error, speeding|
|Injuries||161 (16 seriously)|
Shortly after midnight on August 28, 1991, a 4 Lexington Avenue Express train on the New York City Subway's IRT Lexington Avenue Line derailed as it was about to enter 14th Street–Union Square, killing five people. It was the worst accident on the subway system since the 1928 Times Square derailment. The motorman was found at fault for intoxication and excessive speed, and served time in prison for manslaughter.
Before the accident
The motorman assigned to operate the train, 38-year old Robert E. Ray with three years in title, reported to the Woodlawn terminal on the 4 line to begin his eight-hour shift at 11:30 p.m. on August 27, 1991, 15 minutes late. Despite visible signs that should have had Ray disqualified for duty that night, including bloodshot eyes and wearing tennis shoes, the dispatcher at the Woodlawn terminal that night, Percival Hossack, allowed Ray to go on-duty and assigned him a portable radio for use. Ray then took control of a ten-car R62 train, along with conductor David Beerram, departing Woodlawn at 11:38 p.m., six minutes late. Among the passengers on board was another conductor, Steve Darden, who had just finished his shift and was riding the train back home. Almost immediately, Ray overran the first stop, Mosholu Parkway, by five cars. Then Ray overran the next stop, Bedford Park Boulevard-Lehman College, by one car. In both instances, Beerram admonished Ray, but did not pull the emergency brake, which would have required a complex restarting procedure and made Ray's condition apparent, or radio the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA)'s command center about Ray's operation or request that power be cut to the train, as required by NYCTA regulations. As Ray's operation of the train became more erratic continuing down the line, both Beerram and the off-duty Darden warned Ray multiple times about his operation, but no one on board pulled the emergency brake to stop the train.
During the night of August 27–28, 1991, there was construction on the IRT Lexington Avenue Line that required southbound express trains to switch to the local track. This required the trains to slow down to 10 miles per hour (16 km/h) before entering a "pocket track" between the southbound local and express tracks, so that they would not delay local and express trains that were not going through the switch. At about 12:12 a.m. on August 28, 1991, 44 minutes after leaving Woodlawn, Ray's erratic operation of the train finally led to disaster, as the train heading southbound with approximately 216 passengers, going at nearly 50 miles per hour (80 km/h), too fast for a tripcock to stop the train in time derailed at the pocket track north of the 14th Street–Union Square station.
Five passengers died, mostly in the second car, almost immediately, and 161 passengers were seriously injured. Several support columns were destroyed, causing the street above to immediately subside by 0.5 inches (1.3 cm). It was the deadliest subway accident to happen in New York City since the Times Square disaster of 1928.
The first car, #1440, which struck a steel pillar, was cut in half and had its roof sheared off, but its motorman's cab was not damaged. The second, #1439, was folded in half by the barrier between the express and local tracks. Car #1437 was split in half and folded around a support beam, and cars #1436 and #1435 were also seriously damaged. The cars lay tangled between the support beams. The train was damaged so badly that one emergency responder said that he "couldn't even tell where one car ended and another began at some points".
Rescue, investigation, and trial
The accident occurred within earshot of the Transit Police command post in the Union Square station, and within the sight of two Transit Police officers waiting on the platform, and response was rapid. The accident location was very close to the platform, which was used for triage, and field treatment took place at street level. Working conditions at the site were very cramped and hot, and it took until approximately 3:30 a.m. until Darden, the off-duty conductor on board, was the last injured passenger extracted from the train. In total, 121 passengers and 24 emergency responders (who suffered heat-related conditions or minor cuts and bruises) were taken to hospitals; 16 passengers were injured seriously enough to be admitted. Debris was found as far away as 150 feet (46 m) from the lead car.
Ray later said that he had drunk heavily the day before his work shift because he was depressed that his ex-girlfriend would not let him see their two children, and that at the time of the accident he had fallen asleep. He was not hurt in the crash, so he walked into the station and identified himself, then sat on a park bench during the rescue operation. The NYPD later reported that he drank three beers after the accident. He was arrested at 5:30 while returning to his apartment building, and when tested approximately 13 hours after the accident, his blood alcohol level was 0.21; the legal level in New York State was 0.10 at the time.
The facts that Ray had overshot the first two stops in the Bronx and had been warned repeatedly by Beerram and Darden to reduce his speed, and had not braked approaching 14th Street–Union Square, were brought up in the ensuing trial.
On October 15, 1992, a jury acquitted him of murder but found him guilty of five counts of second-degree manslaughter, and on November 6 he was sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison plus terms of between one and seven years for assault on 26 of the injured passengers, all to run concurrently. He was released in April 2002.
The day after the crash, the MTA announced that it would start randomly checking subway motormen and bus drivers for illegal substances, such as drugs or alcohol. Using figures from another fatal incident the previous year, the MTA estimated that it would have to pay between $5 million and $10 million to accident victims.
Service on the Lexington Avenue Line resumed six days after the accident, on September 3, after completion of the site investigation and four days of round-the-clock debris removal and construction work, including the Labor Day holiday. The five R62 subway cars destroyed in the accident—the lead car, #1440, and four of the five following cars, #1435, #1436, #1437, and #1439—were scrapped.[note 1] In addition to the support columns, two sets of track, a third rail, two signal sets, two switches, and an air compressor room had been destroyed. The switches and tracks were rebuilt, with the NYCTA removing the "pocket track" on which the train had derailed and replacing it with a simple diamond crossover.
A 1992 study commissioned after the accident by the New York City Transit Authority found that some signals in the subway system, including several on the Lexington Avenue line, were spaced too closely for a train traveling at maximum speed to have time to stop, confirming the finding of safety investigators immediately after the crash; the issue resurfaced after a rear-end collision on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995. Ultimately, the accident led to the phasing-in of communications-based train control and automated trains on the New York City Subway in the 21st century.
Other deadly crashes in the New York City Subway:
- Malbone Street Wreck
- Ninth Avenue derailment
- 1928 Times Square derailment
- 1995 Williamsburg Bridge collision
- Car #1438 was not seriously damaged, so it was later returned to service along with #1431–1434, the other four cars in the train. Car #1438 was converted from a non-driving car, or "B" car, to a cab car, or "A" car, in the process. At the time, all R62s were linked in five-car sets, but originally, each car could operate as a single unit.
- Robert D. McFadden (1 September 1991). "Catastrophe Under Union Square; Crash on the Lexington IRT: Motorman's Run to Disaster". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
- Regional Plan Association, Moving Forward: Accelerating the Transition to Communications-Based Train Control for New York City's Subways, May 2014, p. 18 (pdf).
- "Case Study Number Ten: Union Square Station, New York City—August 28, 1991", in: John Kimball and Hollis Stambaugh, Special Report: Rail Emergencies, Technical report series (United States Fire Administration) USFA-TR-094, [Emmitsburg, Maryland]: Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Data Center, [2003?], p. 27.
- "Probe Finds Subway's Speed Outstripped Safety System", The Washington Post, August 31, 1991 – via HighBeam (subscription required)
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- Brian J. Cudahy, "Preface to the Second Revised Edition", Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the Greatest Subway System in the World, 1979, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Fordham University, 1995, ISBN 9780585195254, p. ix.
- "R-62 (Kawasaki) — R-62A (Bombardier)", nycsubway.org, retrieved May 27, 2014.
- Associated Press, "N.Y. police say subway motorman was drunk; manslaughter charged", The Greenfield Recorder, August 29, 1991, via Fultonhistory.com.
- James C. MacKinley Jr., "Trapped Riders Saved in Team Effort", The New York Times Book of New York: 549 Stories of the People, the Events, and the Life of the City—Past and Present, ed. James Barron, New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009, ISBN 9781579128012, p. 69.
- "Nation & World: Newsmaker", The Milwaukee Journal, September 1, 1991, p. J1.
- "Subway motorman found guilty of manslaughter", Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 16, 1992, p. 14A.
- Laurie Goodstein, "New York Motorman Convicted of Manslaughter; Subway Employee Cleared of Murder Charges in Train Wreck That Killed Five Last Year", The Washington Post, October 16, 1992 – via HighBeam (subscription required)
- Ronald Sullivan, "Motorman Gets 5 to 15 Years in Crash", The New York Times, November 7, 1992.
- "Flashback: Revisiting The Worst Train Derailments In NYC History", Gothamist, December 23, 2012, archived at the Wayback Machine on February 2, 2015.
- Finder, Alan (1991-08-30). "THE SUBWAY CRASH; Crash Prompts M.T.A. to Impose Random Drug and Alcohol Testing". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
- Cohen, Noam S. (1991-09-01). "Trouble Underground; Millions Expected in Crash Lawsuits". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
- Calvin Sims, "Subway Line Back After Being Closed By Fatal Derailing", The New York Times, September 3, 1991.
- "Topics of The Times; After Tragedy, Teamwork", Opinion, The New York Times, September 6, 1991.
- "1992 Winners and Finalists", The Pulitzer Prizes.
- "1992 Pulitzer Prize Winners and Their Works in Journalism and the Arts", The New York Times, April 8, 1992.
- Richard Perez-Pena, "'92 Study Found Problems With Subway Stop Signals", The New York Times, June 21, 1995.
- Associated Press, "Operators not warned about signal problem", The Hour, June 22, 1995, p. 18.
- Justin Glanville, Associated Press, "Century-old New York subway gets a computerized makeover", The Hour, April 11, 2005, p. A18.