On December 12th, 1990, Amtrak Train 66, the Night Owl, derailed at 76 mph in the Back Bay tunnel, colliding with support columns and a stopped MBTA train on an adjacent track.
Amazingly, even with a diesel fuel fire burning and the nose of a locomotive breaking through the road above, nobody was killed. Newspapers across the country ran stories about this "miracle wreck" and praised the rescue workers and train crews involved. Sound interesting? Read on!
The information and photos in this article are from an Interstate Commerce Commission (now National Transportation Safety Board) report on the wreck. As a work of the US Government, the photos are in the public domain.
On the morning of December 12, 1990, Amtrak train #66, the Night Owl, was rolling towards Boston with a student engineer and trainer at the throttle. The train had originated in Washington DC at 10:30pm the previous night, and the current crew had been running the train since the locomotive change at New Haven, CT at 4:30am.* The train consisted of two locomotives - Amtrak F40PH units 272 and 366 - and ten cars.
The student engineer was at the throttle, supervised by the locomotive trainer, as the train approached Back Bay Station. In the investigation the trainer stated that he instructed his student to make a power braking application** when Ruggles Station came into view, then upon noticing that the train was not responding properly, to make a full service application. He stated that the train still did not slow, so he made an emergency brake application.
Dense smoke from a diesel fuel fire hampered the rescue, and wreckage blocked doors. It took two hours for train crews and rescue workers to clear the trains and put out the fire, but eventually the scene was cleared. 454 people (7 crew members and 43 passengers on #906, 5 crew members and 391 passengers on #66, and 7 firefighters) were injured, but miraculously, unbelievably, nobody was killed.
MBTA 906 was in push mode, so the locomotive shoving on the rear of the train, F40PH-2C 1073, took most of the damage. It was smashed into the columns holding up the tunnel and broke through the surface of the road above. Only one car of the MBTA train derailed and was scrapped on site along with all three locomotives involved and several Amtrak cars. The MBTA and Amtrak estimate the wreck caused over 12.5 million dollars worth of damage.
|Graph of train speed from the last stop to the POD. Click to enlarge.|
In the investigation that followed, the locomotive's event recorder showed a very different story than that told by the Amtrak trainer. No brake applications were made at Ruggles Station, power, full service, or otherwise. When braking tests were conducted, they showed that even if the brakes had been applied at Ruggles, the train still would not have slowed in time to prevent a wreck.
They showed that for the train to have been slowed, braking should have started near a local pickle factory about 9000 feet before Back Bay station. Sand found on the rails suggesting an emergency brake application were found just 480 feet - roughly 4 seconds - before the point of derailment.
The NTSB concluded that the locomotive engineer trainer was responsible, for not instructing the trainee to apply the brakes at the proper location. The trainee had run on the line before, but the trainer was legally responsible for safe operation of the train.
In the wake of the wreck, Amtrak installed advance speed warning signs at the pickle factory where braking should have started, added circuitry to the signal system to show the speed restriction (and automatically stop trains that don't take actions to slow the train down), and revamped its locomotive engineer training program.
You can find 60 pages of details at the NTSB report here. Their site doesn't allow linking to anywhere besides the root page so you have to click on "I.C.C. Historical Railroad Investigation Reports (1911-1994)" then "1990" then the second "AMTRAK."
*Prior to the introduction of Acela in 2000, the Northeast Corridor was electrified only between New Haven, CT, and Washington, DC.
**According to the official Amtrak rulebook, power braking is a train-handling method involving a minimum brake application with the throttle set to no higher than Run 4 (half-throttle), then a release of the locomotive's independent brake and a throttle reduction to Run 1 or Run 2. This action "stretches" the train and prevents the coupler slack from running in.
- Photos taken by the National Transportation Safety Board. As they were taken by a US Government employee during the course of their official duties, all the images here are in the public domain.
Something on the T that you've seen or heard of and have always wondered about? Leave a comment and I'll see if I can research and write about it next!