Striking and Speeding: The 1918 New York City (USA) Train Derailment

Max S
13 min readJan 28, 2024

Background

New York City (commonly shortened to NYC) is a city of 8.8 million people (as of 2020) in the northeastern United States of America, located in the state of New York 130km/81mi northeast of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) and 107km/66mi southwest of New Haven in the state of Connecticut (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of New York City in the northeast of the USA.

The city is crisscrossed by an extensive rapid transit network, centered around the tightly packed Manhattan borough but also spreading out from it into the surrounding area, mostly consisting of below-ground subway trains. Lines have come and gone, and operators have appeared, merged and disappeared just as well since the inception of the underground train services in 1904 (which came 35 years after the first above-ground commuter rail line in the city). The system was under the control of two private companies by 1905, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). The BRT had been founded in 1896, operating both passenger and freight trains on its network across the boroughs (districts) of Queens and Brooklyn (where the accident occurred).

One of the lines used by the BRT’s services was the Brighton Line, a double- to six-tracked electrified commuter rail line in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City, opening in 1878. The line is still in service today, servicing 20 stations while variously running elevated above ground level, on the ground, in “cuttings” or underground.

The site of the accident seen from above today. Street names and buildings around the site have changed, but the tunnel in which the accident occurred still exist. The northern end of it can be seen at the top of the image by the red-roofed house. The train came from the north (top of the image).

Trains moving southbound on the line approached (what now is) Flatbush Avenue/Ocean Avenue from the northeast, heading steeply downhill before entering a short tunnel just ahead of Prospect Park Station. The tunnel contained a sharp S-turn, merging the line into an existing line coming in from the north. The S-turn consisted of a light right hand turn followed by a sharp left hand turn, lining the trains up with the station beyond the end of the tunnel. The section, which was a recent addition at the time of the accident, had a 9.65kph/6mph speed limit due to its sharply bent and downhill character.

Looking towards what used to be Malbone Street Tunnel in 2022, facing north. A piece of the sharp turn can be seen coming out of the tunnel on the right.

The Train Involved

The train involved in the accident was a five-car New York City Subway train, consisting of BU-type cars. The BU-cars are a group of relatively similar wood-bodied train cars, some with steel frames, built around 1900 in both powered (fitted with electric motors) and unpowered (“trailer”) configurations by different manufacturers. The train involved in the accident consisted of three powered cars and two trailer cars, each measuring 15.24m/50ft in length at a total train weight of 120.5 metric tons. The train carried approximately 675 people at the time of the accident and was driven by Mister Luciano, aged 25.

A preserved three-car BU-type train, the same type as the one involved in the accident, photographed in 2019.

The Accident

The 6:10pm service from the Park Row Terminal in Manhattan, New York City, to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NYC, is a typical Friday evening rush hour train, packed wall to wall with over 650 passengers as it departs Park Place Station at 6:40pm. The crowded train is manned by a new driver, 25 years old Mister Luciano, on his first day as a subway train driver. He had previously driven the train into Manhattan from the Kings Highway Yard in Brooklyn and was now doing the “return trip”, carrying mostly commuters on their way home for the weekend.

Mister Luciano is driving on a long straight section of the line shortly after departing Park Place Station, heading for the tunnel beneath Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard). The tunnel holds a sharp turn as it aims the line south for the adjacent Prospect Park station, requiring trains to slow to barely more than a walking pace. But Mister Luciano’s train doesn’t slow down as it heads down the inclined straight section towards the tunnel, reaching the portal of the tunnel at 6:42pm, travelling at no less than 50kph/30mph (some estimates go as high as 65kph/40mph). The rear wheelset of the leading car derails as centrifugal forces pull the train from the curve, helplessly dragging the second car off the tracks. The tunnel offers nowhere for the derailing train to go, slamming the second car into the concrete wall of the tunnel where it disintegrates on impact, as does the third car. The concrete walls of the tunnel, lined with steel supports, act like a giant rasp, grinding the train cars down to smithereens as their momentum drags them along the wall. The debris from cars 2 and 3 cushions the impact of car 4 enough for it to only suffer minimal damage, while car 5 remains undamaged. Cars 2 and 3, however, suffer a total loss of survival space. At least 93 people (sources claim up to 105) lose their lives as the train disintegrates, over 250 are injured. It’s the deadliest accident in the history of the Subway, even still 105 years on from it.

Aftermath

People at the nearby station hear the deafening crash and noises of splintering wood, followed by a cloud of dust exiting the tunnel. Into the silence and daylight staggers a man with torn clothes, missing a shoe and with a bloodied face. People at the platform make way for him as he reaches the platform, it takes time for the realization what occurred to set in. Someone eventually raises the alarm and firefighters along with police officers reach the site at 7pm. The fire department uses ladders to access the tracks down in the cutting on either side of the tunnel, skipping the lengthy trip via the adjacent station. Witnesses have held back some survivors who tried to leave the site, be it in shock, horror from the sights or both. One of the first responders to enter the tunnel is later quoted by the New York Times, saying the survivors were trapped in “a darkened jungle of steel dust and wood splinters, glass shards and iron beams projecting like bayonets.” The firefighters make slow progress, having to move the shattered remains of the train to move into the wreckage inch by inch.

The remains of car 3 inside the tunnel, having lost almost its entire wall during the derailment.

The nearest hospital was completely at capacity with patients from the ongoing Spanish Flu epidemic, requiring the wounded to be treated in a makeshift field hospital at nearby Ebbets Field, a baseball stadium. 83 of the victims would be transported to a morgue and lined up under sheets, with people who feared someone they knew among them having to lift sheet after sheet to see if they could identify one of them.

It took responders hours to comb through the wreckage, but one person was noticeably missing from the start: Mister Luciano. He had survived the crash just about uninjured, and fled the scene after the accident. He was eventually tracked down (it’s not quite clear by whom) and, upon confronted by Mister Darling, one of the survivors, stated that he didn’t know what had gone wrong. “I lost control of the damn thing, that’s all”. The investigation into the accident, which was conducted entirely by law enforcement (as it was the norm at the time), was quick to blame Mister Luciano for the accident. The tunnel had an extremely low speed limit, and as far as anyone could tell Mister Luciano had either not slowed down for it at all, or only tried to do so way too late. But the circumstances, as it would turn out, went well beyond “driver forgot to slow down”.

The remains of car 2, sitting in storage after the accident. One may wonder how necessary the “out of service”-sign really was.

The chain of events leading to the accident reached back to 1913, when the BRT signed their contract with the government of NYC, who would build the rail lines and lease them to the BRT for their operations. In return, the price of a ticket was fixed at 5 cents (1.55 USD/1.42 Euros in 2023), regardless of the trip taken. The first world war had then proceeded to massively drive up inflation, bringing the value of 5 cents down to that of 2.6 cents. The contract was set in stone though, there wouldn’t be a price increase allowed before 1962. The increased cost of operation and maintenance, including increased wages, had driven BRT to the edge of bankruptcy by fall 1918.

There were also employee-issues at the same time, with the BRT refusing to recognize the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) as an entity that could negotiate working conditions or pay. Any motormen (the then-common term for drivers) suspected of being involved with the BLET would be relentlessly harassed. Employees were followed after work, suffered disciplinary measures on blown up (if not made-up) charges and got unpopular shifts, among other things. The BLET answered in late 1918 with the threat of a strike, a threat answered by the BRT in the form of 40 drivers, about 10% of the workforce, being fired for wearing a union pin, with the company labeling the “troublemakers” as communists for good measure. This led to the threatened strike, with drivers and conductors walking away from their positions at 5am on November 1st 1918.

Workers stand on the remains of car 3, which was dismantled in the tunnel.

The BRT, having anticipated the strike, put any employee they could find to work to keep the trains moving, trying to make the strike seem as ineffective as possible. This is where Mister Luciano enters the picture. I wrote above that he was on his first day, which is both true and a wild understatement. Mister Luciano had been working for the BRT for a few years, but as a dispatcher, not as a train driver. Conveniently, he wasn’t a member of the BLET. Now, a normal subway train driver at the time would undergo a lengthy process until being placed at the controls of a train with passengers. There were medical examinations, a 60-hour theory course, a 90-question written exam, 60 hours apprenticeship (watching an experienced driver without actually doing any driving oneself) and then, if the training was deemed a success, one would get to drive trains. But only empty ones at maintenance yards and for shunting, until more experience was acquired. Luciano, in contrast, had parked an empty train at a yard once, a year ago, received approximately 2.5 hours of theory training and then rode along with an actually licensed driver for two days on two lines that both weren’t the Brighton Line.

There were also personal factors at play that influenced his mental state. He had recently been sick with the flu and was still recovering on the day of the accident, and had had to bury his three years old daughter just three days prior after she died from the Spanish Flu. In short, he shouldn’t have been at the controls of a subway train, but the BRT chose to put him there anyway.

The interior of one of the train cars, witnesses referred to the cars as being “reduced to matchsticks”.

The tunnel in which the derailment occurred had also only been opened a few weeks prior, meaning even most licensed drivers would have been relatively inexperienced with it. It was constructed as a new connection between the Brighton Beach line and Coney Island, going around a new mainline being under construction. The tunnel’s construction was actually examined after the accident, but it was found to be up to the required standards. The issue was that there were no systems monitoring a train’s speed, train drivers were in sole control of a train’s speed and had to remember when to apply how much braking force.

Mister Luciano said in his interrogation that he had attempted to slow the train as he approached the tunnel, but examination of the wreckage showed that he had neither attempted to reverse the motors (turning them into generators, slowing the train by increased resistance) nor had he triggered an emergency stop. Survivors and trackside witnesses reported that he had struggled to control the train’s speed ahead of the accident, overshooting stations or stopping short. The last moments of his journey saw him descend a long, straight section of track, shedding approximately 21m/70ft in elevation, which, combined with the following sharp turn, did him in.

The investigation also found that Mister Luciano had been “given the keys” to an improperly configured train, which may have worsened the train’s behavior in the derailment. BU-type trailer-cars weighed about half as much as the motor cars and were comparatively top-heavy, especially when loaded with passengers. It was thus standard procedure to increase stability by never coupling two trailer-cars together, instead always putting a motor car between them to improve stability. Mister Luciano’s train, in contrast, consisted of a motor car, two trailers and then two motor cars. Several shunting workers at Kings Highway Yard were also part of the strike, making it possible that an inexperienced worker assembled the train for Mister Luciano, replacing a striking experienced worker.

The leading car from the train sitting in storage with minor damage, especially compared to car 2 behind it.

The BLET ended their strike a few hours after the accident, although their fight for recognition would continue until 1920. Mister Hylan, the mayor of NYC at the time, blamed the BRT for the accident and had Mister Luciano joined in court by five company officials, with all six men facing manslaughter-charges. The trial opened in Nassau County, New York, in March 1919, being moved there as the 30km/18.6mi linear distance was as far away from Brooklyn as the trial could legally be held. The move had become necessary due to the constitutional “right to a fair trial” when, during a pretrial appointment, members of a survivor support group had demanded that the BRT officials be shot.

Mister Luciano insisted throughout the trial that he was in control but that the train wouldn’t slow down, something contradicted by the findings from the wreckage’s examination. The court never examined other possible contributing factors, such as sleeplessness due to the recent loss and illness or the extreme unfamiliarity with both the route and the train, as Mister Luciano insisted exclusively on an undefined mechanical failure.

All defendants were eventually found not guilty or had their charges dropped by early 1921, meaning nobody was ever actually sentenced for their role in the accident. Mister Luciano went on to have his name changed and became Mister Lewis (also adopting a new first name), working as a house builder in the borough of queens before retiring to Tucson, Arizona, where he died in 1985 at the age of 91.

Responders standing at the southern portal of the tunnel, next to a ladder used to access the site from street level.

The BRT was sued for damages at the same time as the trial against Mister Luciano had been going on. Their payouts reached 75 Million USD (1.28 Billion USD/1.18 Billion Euros in 2023) by March 1921, at which point the company literally ran out of cash and couldn’t provide any further payouts. The company thus went into receivership (a form of insolvency proceeding), with its assets being turned into the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), which had to provide the funds for the outstanding claims. They ended up paying out 1.6 Million USD (28.5 Million USD/26.2 Million Euros in 2023) starting in 1923, ensuring no claimed damages were left unpaid. The BMT was later sold to the city of New York in 1940 when the subway system was taken out of private hands.

The accident also served as a motivator to pull wooden cars, especially those without ANY steel in their construction, from service. The change still took a long time to finish, with the last wood-bodied cars being retired from service in New York City by 1969, 42 years after they had been withdrawn from lines running in or through tunnels. Several safety-systems were introduced since the accident to reduce the risk of repetition, including stronger headlights, improved signaling and autonomous trackside speed controls to stop speeding trains. Speedometers also became standard equipment so drivers no longer had to guess the speed from experience.

On a side-note, rail accidents in the USA are no longer investigated by law enforcement. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates them (along with other transportation accidents) since the 1970s, being expressively separate from law enforcement and intended to only find out why an accident happened, not who should be charged with what.

A preserved BU-type car sitting at the New York Transit Museum in 2023. This particular unit was retired in 1955.

The tunnel with the sharp turn still exists to this day, being used by the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, a small 4-station route on the NYC Subway. It has been accident-free since a small derailment in 1974 with no injuries. Malbone Street was renamed Empire Boulevard in December 1918, barely a month after the accident, and still carries that name as of late 2023. A small, detached 100m/330ft residential street still carries the name “Malbone Street” today, paralleling Empire Boulevard 1.15km/0.7mi linear distance from the site.

A bronze memorial plaque was installed at the northern exit of Prospect Park station, just a few feet from where the accident occurred, in November 2019, along with the corner of Empire Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue being renamed “Malbone Centennial Way”. The plaque and renaming came to be after Mister Valerio, a local firefighter, had reached out to Brooklyn’s borough president (and later NYC’s mayor) Mister Adams about the victims of the accident, which was almost 100 years in the past at that point, deserving to be remembered.

The memorial plaque, unveiled at the site in 2019.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.