America's Deadliest Train Accidents
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The recent Chatsworth train collision of 2008 renewed concerns over the safety of our nation's railway and commuter train systems. On Friday, September 12, 2008 a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, California.
While as of this writing the official report determining the probable cause of the accident has not been completed, the basic circumstances that have been released suggest that human error, the leading cause of train accidents, was once again to blame.
With at least 18 dead and 135 injured, many critically, the 2008 Chatsworth train collision tragically became the deadliest railway accident in the U.S. since the 1993 Big Bayou Canot train disaster. To give it some historical perspective, a brief review of America's deadliest train accidents follows.
The aforementioned Big Bayou Canot train disaster occurred after a barge being pushed by a tugboat struck a swing bridge over the Big Bayou Canot in Alabama near the city of Mobile. The pilot of the tugboat had become disoriented in heavy fog, and the tugboat's subsequent collision with the bridge forced it out of alignment, severely kinking the track. About eight minutes later, an Amtrak locomotive carrying 220 passengers and crew crossed the bridge and derailed at the kink. 47 people were killed, after several cars and locomotives plunged into the water.
The death toll far exceeded that of the 1987 Chase, Maryland wreck, in which 16 people lost their lives. It was determined that prior to the collision of a set of Conrail freight locomotives and an Amtrak train about 18 miles northeast of Baltimore, a departure test was not performed on the Conrail train. The test would have detected that a cab signal alerter whistle had been disabled and that one of the light bulbs in a cab signal display had been removed. Furthermore, the engineer and the brakeman had been smoking marijuana.
Prior to these tragic accidents, the previous deadliest U.S. railroad accident did not occur until as far back as 1918, a terrible year in U.S. railroad safety history in which three disastrous train wrecks alone took the lives of 280 people. These included the Great Train Wreck of 1918 in Nashville, Tennessee, the deadliest U.S. railroad accident of all time; the Malbone Street Wreck in Brooklyn, New York, which turns out to have been the second deadliest; and the Hammond Circus Train Wreck in Hammond, Indiana, which was the fourth deadliest.
The third deadliest U.S. railroad accident was the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster, which took place in Ashtabula, Ohio in 1876. This disaster resulted in 92 people losing their lives.