Malbone Street Wreck
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Remains of the wreck
|Date||November 1, 1918|
|Rail line||Brighton Beach Line|
|Operator||Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Excessive speed round curve|
The Malbone Street Wreck, also known as the Brighton Beach Line Accident, was a rapid transit railroad accident that occurred November 1, 1918, on the Brighton Beach Line beneath the intersection of Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Avenue, and Malbone Street (now known as Empire Boulevard), in the community of Flatbush, Brooklyn. At least 93 people died, making it one of the deadliest train crashes in the history of the United States, as well as the deadliest in the history of the New York City Subway.
The wreck occurred the evening of November 1, 1918, at 6:42 p.m., 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 going toward the Prospect Park station, negotiating a curve designated to be taken at 6 miles per hour (10 km/h) at a speed estimated at between 30 and 40 mph (48 and 64 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 fifth suffered no damage at all. The motorman was not injured and left the scene of the accident.
Causes of the wreck
The Malbone Street Wreck was the result of a series of individual circumstances, as follows:
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. Hours later, the strike was discontinued because of the crash.
Motorman's lack of experience
The motorman for the accident was 25-year-old Antonio Edward Luciano, a crew dispatcher 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. Luciano had received less than three hours of classroom instruction in being a motorman; the norm was no fewer than 90 hours of instruction and hands-on training.
In addition to his inexperience, Luciano was mourning the death of his daughter, who had been a victim of the influenza epidemic and whose funeral had been three days prior. He himself was recovering from a bout of the flu.
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 under construction. Previously, trains entered Prospect Park through an older tunnel, which provided a straighter, more direct route. Trains going northbound continued to come straight out of Prospect Park and used the original track that led onto the BMT Franklin Avenue Line via a straight tunnel, still in use.
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 avoid coupling two trailer cars together by having 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, in order numbers 80 and 100, that sustained the bulk of the damage, both to the cars and to the passengers.
The train was operating at a speed of at least 30 mph (48 km/h) when it derailed. The accident occurred within the reverse curve, which had a speed limit of 6 mph (10 km/h). The motorman stated during his interview that he had attempted to slow the train, but the subsequent investigation of the wreck indicated that no attempt to engage 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. In the minutes leading up to the wreck, the motorman had difficulty timing the train's progress, overshooting multiple stations. Bypassing the Consumers Park station meant Luciano wouldn't apply the brakes as the train descended a 70-foot incline from Crown Heights to the tunnel near the Willink Entrance to Prospect Park.
The back wheels of the first car derailed, causing the second and third cars of the train to crash against the tunnel wall. Passengers were imprisoned "in a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood splinters, glass shards and iron beams projecting like bayonets."
One surviving passenger, a lawyer named Charles Darling, became so concerned about the train's speed that he fell to the floor and braced himself moments before the crash. Darling later confronted Luciano and asked the motorman what had gone wrong. "I don't know," Luciano told Darling. "I lost control of the damn thing. That's all."
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. He was switched onto the wrong line at the junction prior to the final approach to the tunnel, but that was attributed 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 according to procedure and without incident.
New York City Mayor John F. Hylan and his administration placed blame on the BRT, bringing both Luciano and company officials to trial for manslaughter. With a change of venue, the trial was held in Nassau County, New York.
The prosecutorial focus required the BRT to present a coherent defense on behalf of both its officials and Luciano. Because of this, neither the proximate cause of the wreck nor the excessive speed of the train was adequately explained. Luciano testified on his own behalf, contending that he was in control of the train but that the train did not respond properly. This opposed 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 attempted. 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 (he was suffering from insomnia after losing a child to Spanish influenza and was working a double shift), a desire to make up time because of the earlier switching problems, or his unfamiliarity of the route on which he was operating.
Ultimately, all of the defendants were acquitted or had the indictments dropped. One official received a hung jury and was not retried. Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Co., the successor company after BRT went into receivership, paid out $1.6 million in claims in 1923. The highest settlement was $40,000, equivalent to $650,000 in 2018, which went to the widow of Floyd G. Ten Broeck, a 47-year-old engineer who designed and built power plants and paper mills.
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. 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 speedometers, headlights, 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—lead car 726, fourth car 725, and final car 1064—were repaired and returned to service. The severely damaged trailers, 100 and 80, were scrapped; car 80 was cut up on-site during the wreck cleanup.
In the wake of the tragedy, the majority of Malbone Street was renamed Empire Boulevard, a name it still bears. A detached one-block section of the street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn still bears the original "Malbone Street" name. 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 Franklin Avenue Shuttle, but is not used in passenger service.
In 1974, another accident at the same site, involving a split switch rather than an over-speeding condition, occurred when a slow-speed train of R32 subway cars derailed and hit the wall. There were no injuries, but a damaged car was scrapped.
In popular culture
In 2018, Dave Kelly and Simon Fraser began serializing a Tales of the Night Watchman comic entitled "The Ghost Train" in the Park Slope Reader, a local Brooklyn paper, about the elevated train involved in the infamous wreck returning to terrorize the city in the present. The story debuted in the paper's Spring 2018 edition, number 64.
Similar accidents involving sudden very sharp curves include:
- Morpeth rail crashes (five occasions) – England
- Rosedale train crash – Australia
- Waterfall train disaster – Australia
- Amagasaki rail crash – Japan (2005)
- Valencia Metro derailment – Spain (2006)
- Santiago de Compostela rail disaster – Spain (2013)
- New York Metro-North train derailment – United States (2013)
- Philadelphia Amtrak train derailment – United States (2015)
- Washington State Amtrak train derailment - United States (2017)
- Cudahy, Brian (1999). The Malbone Street Wreck, New York: Fordham University Press. p. 81.
- Sansone, Gene (2004). New York Subways: An Illustrated History of New York City's Transit Cars. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 165. ISBN 0801879221.
- "Scores Killed, Many Hurt on B.R.T." The New York TImes. November 2, 1918. Retrieved November 2, 2018.
- Roberts, Sam (November 1, 2018). "100 Years After New York's Deadliest Subway Crash". The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2018.
- nycsubway.org – BMT Franklin: Prospect Park
- Reis, Ronald A. (2009). The New York City Subway System. Infobase. pp. 67–77.
- "38 B.R.T Claimants Awarded $95,925". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. October 27, 1919. p. 10 – via Newspapers.com.
- "75 Dead, 100 Hurt in Brighton "L" Wreck". New York Tribune. November 2, 1918. p. 1. ISSN 1941-0646. Retrieved September 26, 2017 – via Library of Congress.
- AmericanHeritage.com Death in the Subway by David Rapp
- Account of the Malbone Street wreck by www.nycsubway.org, including contemporary stories from New York Times