Walkabout: Death Rides the Rails, Part 1

Photo via nyctransitforums.com

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

When I first came to New York, in 1977, I was fascinated by the subway. It is, after all, the lifeblood of the city, coursing along its arteries, from the head of the Bronx, through the body of Manhattan, to the limbs of Brooklyn, and Queens. Even though I was introduced to the trains at probably the worst time in their history, it was still a magical conveyance that could take you anywhere. Every car was covered in graffiti, and the heat, or the fans never worked, in the days before air conditioning, but still…New York! I was very taken by the different lines, the names and numbers, and the beauty that you could still see in the older stations, so I bought a book on the history of the subway system, and that was my first introduction to the story about the worst subway disaster in New York’s history; the Malbone Wreck. I didn’t live in Brooklyn at the time, so I had no idea where Malbone Street was. When Brooklyn became my home, and its streets became very familiar to me, the story resonated even more. If you aren’t familiar with what happened, and don’t know where Malbone Street is, don’t worry. You aren’t clueless. Malbone Street itself died with the nearly one hundred people who perished in the trains that horrible day, long ago in 1918. Today it is known as Empire Boulevard.

November 1, 1918 was another busy day in New York. There was a lot going on, and much of it was not good. World War I was winding down in Europe, but the war had taken its toll in the city, with personnel in many professions and occupations overseas, including the transit systems. The city, like much of the country, was still in the midst of a horrific influenza pandemic that cut a swath of death throughout the entire world between 1918 and 1920. Like the plagues of the Dark Ages, this flu epidemic, called Spanish Flu, seemed unstoppable, and would kill over 50 million people before it was done. No one, highborn or low, was immune. On top of that, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) chose this day to call a strike. Some of the train motormen were members, and the union was protesting over issues of union membership, and hiring and firing of members by the BRT.

Many of us nostalgically refer to the trains by their old names, the IRT, BMT, and IRT, but back when those names, as well as others, were in use, they were independent train lines, not just names and numbers in one large system. The BRT was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit line, a public transit holding company founded in 1896 that had incorporated several older surface and rapid transit lines into itself. These lines ran primarily in Brooklyn and Queens, and included the old Atlantic Avenue Railroad, the Kings County Elevated Line, which was known as the Fulton St. line, the Brighton Beach Line and the Prospect Park and Coney Island line, also called the Culver Line. These lines are among the oldest in the city, and the latter two were designed to take day trippers from Downtown Brooklyn to the beaches, amusement parks and racetracks of Coney Island. The BRT was mostly an elevated line, but would also run on the surface, occasionally passing through tunnels before rising to the surface again.

The IRT, the Interborough Rapid Transit line, is New York’s oldest underground subway line, dating from 1904. It was a private entity that wasn’t purchased by the City until 1940. These trains today are the numbered lines, and they had tracks that crossed Brooklyn along Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues. In 1918, these two companies were negotiating a merger, and because of that, some train lines were re-routed in the area near where the Prospect Park stop on the Franklin Avenue Shuttle now stands. The trains were re-routed to a sharp curve that was nicknamed “Dead Man’s Curve”, even before the accident. The train had to go down a steep hill, and then make this steep “S” shaped curve, before entering the Malbone Street Tunnel.

In hindsight, horrible accidents always seem to be made up of a perfect storm of smaller causes. This one was no different. The BLE strike that day left the BRT short of motormen. Instead of closing the line down until the strike was over, the BRT pressed inexperienced staff into service, and had them operating the trains. On this fateful day, they chose a twenty-three year old dispatcher name Edward Luciano to be motorman on the Malbone train. He was still recovering from influenza, and was still mourning the death of one of his children, the child dying of the flu, only the week before. He had become a motorman only that morning, and had never operated a train in service before. His only experience had been in parking a couple of trains in the rail yard as part of his dispatcher training. He was given a two hour crash course in train operation, and sent on his way. He had never even ridden on the Brighton Beach line before. By the time he was sitting at the front of the Malbone train that evening, he had already put in a full day’s work running another train.

Earlier, he had been on the old Culver Line, one of the original Coney Island bound trains, and that had been easy, as it was a straight and level run. But now he was on the Brighton Beach train, a much different run. Because of its steep hills and that “S” curve, among other tricky terrain problems, this train was usually operated by the line’s most experienced motormen, who were familiar with navigating it, and knew where it required a nuanced hand. Inexperienced and tired, Edward Luciano was totally unprepared.

The trip to Manhattan was uneventful. He went to the end of the line at the Brooklyn Bridge, and picked up a full train load of commuters heading home to Brooklyn. Because of the merger, the system was in chaos, and the signal operators gave Luciano the wrong signals, sending him on the wrong tracks at Franklin Avenue. The mistake was realized, and Luciano had to reverse the train with the help of the signal crew, until they reached the right tracks. Running late, he tried to make up some time by putting on some speed. He still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of running the trains, and later witnesses would report that he often overshot the stations, and had to back up.

He was operating an elevated train of five wooden cars. The train had three motor cars and two trailer cars. Motor cars were heavier, trailer cars were lighter, but more top heavy with passengers, and it was standard practice to have alternating cars for the best stability. But someone had coupled the two trailer cars together, right behind the lead motor car. The error had gone unnoticed. By the time he reached the junction of Malbone St, Flatbush Avenue and Ocean Avenue, he had picked up speed on that steep hill leading to the curve, and was going 30 to 40 miles an hour. It was dark, and Luciano couldn’t see well. He was approaching this single track tunnel at Malbone Street far too fast. Later, experienced motormen would testify that a train needed to be crawling along at 6 miles an hour in order to navigate the turn safely.

Edward Luciano later testified that he had tried to slow the train down, right before the accident, but examination of the brakes and tracks proved otherwise. The first car barreled down into the curve, derailed, and the second two cars left the tracks, tearing off their left sides and roofs. The fourth and fifth cars were barely touched. The trains were packed with people coming home from work. Depending on which car they were in, some of them never stood a chance.

Next time: The accident, the aftermath, the lessons learned and unlearned. The conclusion of the Malbone Street train disaster on the next Walkabout.

(Map: pbs.org)

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