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1958 Jersey Train Crash on a Drawbridge

written by: Willie Scott • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 9/26/2014

On 15th September 1958, the commuter train carrying passengers from Bay Head to Jersey Central met with a fatal accident. The engineer ignored three warning lights and both train locomotives tumbled off the end of an open drawbridge, dragging two of their five cars into the waters of Newark Bay.

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    Freight/Passenger Train Transformed to Commuter Train

    The commuter train started off as a normal freight/passenger train, leaving Jersey City Central Station with two GP7 locomotives pulling 18 cars that were dropped off enroute to Bay Head Junction. It arrived there on the weekend with four passenger cars, one combine car, and the same two GP7 locomotives.

    This was now the commuter train that passengers travelling to their work in New York some 60 odd miles away embarked in on the Monday morning.

    The Central Railroad of New Jersey commuter train #3314, was composed of the following cars and locomotives;

    • 3 passenger cars
    • 1 Combine car: a half luggage and half passenger car divided by partition
    • 1 “dead head" car (reserved for the rail company employees travelling between jobs)
    • Two GP7 General Motors Locos: #1532 being the lead and having the controls; #1526 being the second loco.
    • A sketch of the train is shown below. (Please click on the image to enlarge.)

    Jersey Central Train Composition  

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    The Locomotives

    As noted earlier, the locomotives pulling the ill-fated commuter train were GP7’s (commonly called "geeps") built at the Electro-Motive Division (EMD) of General Motors in Illinois up until 1954. A typical GP7 is shown below.

    Typical GP 7 General Motors Loco from www.wabash-railroad.com and collection of John Nixon  

    GP7 Image from www.wabash-railroad.com

    The first loco on our particular train was a GP7 and this contained the controls being operated by the engineer and fireman. It was designated by the No. 1532. The second loco was a GP7B; it had no controls and carried the No. 1526.

    Both locos were of the four-axle type and were powered by an EMD567B diesel engine of 16 cylinders and 1500 HP.

    The GP7’s were a road switcher, but were designed also as a general purpose yard switcher loco that could also haul freight and power trains in both directions. It was very popular with both the maintenance and train crews because of its ease of maintenance, reliability, and its full-length catwalk.

    These engines were replaced in 1954 by a higher horsepower engine: the GP9.

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    The Newark Bay Bridges

    The first bridge across Newark Bay was a wooden trestle single-track, center swingbridge that was 217' long. It burned down in 1889 after a schooner collided with it, setting it alight.

    In 1901 a replacement bridge was built. This was a twin-tracked drawbridge, or bascule, bridge type that opened to about 90' on each section to let the ships through.

    Due to the increase in the popularity of rail travel, this one was superseded in 1928, being replaced this time by a four-track vertical lift bridge designed and built by Weddell.

    Vertical lift bridges were used over rivers and bays to allow ships to pass under mainly because of cost compared to other types of opening bridges. They also required a much smaller counterweight, enabling stronger, heavier decks to be incorporated. This in turn allowed heavier freight trains to traverse them. They had one distinct disadvantage in that the tonnage of ships passing below the lifted section was limited due to the height of the raised deck.

    The Newark Bridge was 1.3 miles long having four tracks on four main horizontal lift sections of 200' and 300’. It was operated by four turrets that lifted the sections to a height of 118’. These were built from steel girders with a total weight of 44,000 tons. It also suffered structural damage due to a ship colliding with the structure at the waterline.

    It spanned the Newark Bay between Bayonne and Elizabeth Port, being last used in 1978. Some years later in the 80’s it was deemed a hazard to shipping. Controversially demolished, it was razed down to its block foundations. These large stone founds are all that remain of the Newark Bay Draw Bridge today.

    An Image of the Newark Bay Bridge with both lift sections raised is shown below.

    Newark Bay Bridge with lifts raised from Wiki Commons by Historic American Engineering Record  

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    The Bridge Signals and Safety Systems

    The safety systems were as follows;

    1. CAUTION Signals (2)

    • First one at 3/4 mile from the bridge: Red-over-Green. (Proceed with caution at medium speed; in this case 22 mph)
    • Second one ¼ mile from the bridge: Yellow-over-Red. (Proceed, preparing to stop at next signal)

    2. Red Light STOP Signals (1)

    • One at 500’ from the bridge: Red-over-Red-over Red.(Stop)

    3. Derail System (1)

    • Mechanical derail, put into action by the bridge controller before raising the bridge. This consisted of a mechanism similar to a set of points, except the rails directed the train truck wheels onto the ballast and crossbeams of the track. This derail mechanism is placed so that it should slow down and stop the train before it reached a raised bridge; in this case 450' from the bridge. However the train was traveling too fast for the derail to have the designed effect.
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    The Lead-up and After Effects of the Disaster

    The Sand Captain, a sand dredger, was approaching the bridge and as her height exceeded the 35’ clearance under the bridge, she signaled the bridge controller for access. As she had maritime right of way, the bridge controller Patrick Corcoran put all rail signals to caution and stop, then opened the derailing mechanism. This was standard procedure, and interlocked with the lifting mechanism, allowed him to lift the bridge to let the Sand Captain pass under.

    As he went outside the control room to watch the sand dredger pass under he looked back up along the bridge trestle, expecting to see train #3314 stopped at the last light.

    Imagine his shock and horror as he witnessed the train plunging off the rails between the concrete counter weights and the lifting section into Newark Bay waters. It was 10.01 am precisely.

    Below the bridge only the quick reaction of her captain averted a further disaster as he put the vessel to emergency astern, narrowly avoiding the train’s descent to the bay. He then made the distress signal of four long blasts on the ships horn/whistle that brought the disaster to the attention of the local people.

    The two locomotives along with the deadhead and first passenger cars disappeared into the water. The third car hung up on its rear trucks, and the fourth and fifth cars remained on the bridge trestle.

    Some passengers managed to escape from the submerged cars and swam to the safety of the lower structure foundations. Others in the suspended car also managed to swim or jump to safety before it too fell into the bay a few hours later.

    Meanwhile up in the control room, the bridge operator had raised the alarm to his supervisor who stopped all movement of trains toward the bridge and alerted the Coast Guard.

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    The Rescuers

    The train was carrying around 100 passengers, and out of these 44 people lost their lives. It is certain that more would have been lost were it not for the quick response of the Coast Guard, who were quickly on the scene of the disaster, and to the following civilians who also played a vital part in the rescue of survivors.

    • Ed McCarthy a local marina owner who went out in his 17’ boat a number of times, filling it with survivors.
    • Local boys out on a fishing trip managed to pull some of the survivors out of the water. One of the boys known as Young Sellers was injured himself in the operation.

    The rescue was over in under an hour when anyone who was going to be saved had been saved.

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    The Investigation

    There were several investigations into the 1958 Jersey train crash.

    They all concluded that the train driver was to blame for ignoring all the signals and not slowing down or stopping the train. This was thought to have been caused by a heart attack, although why the fireman took no action remains a mystery.

    The main recommendation to come out of it was to fit a "deadman control" to the cab of the locomotives. The railway company was ordered to comply with this recommendation and subsequently fitted these to all their locomotives.

    Author's Notes

    Both inquests blamed the engineer for the accident, citing a medical condition such as a heart attack as the main cause. Whilst researching this article, I questioned what the fireman was doing when the train passed the caution and stop signals without slowing down. One source believed he could have gone into the 2nd loco to adjust something such as the heating to the passenger cars, but would he have done so at such a crucial section of the track?

    Indeed another source quoted that the train's "emergency stop" had been operated several seconds before the train plunged over the open drawbridge, so he may have been out of the main cab, returning in time to operate this or, maybe the engineer came to again; we will never know, but we should learn from it.

    In European railway systems, some have red stop signals that are radio controlled so, if a train passes a red, the radio signal automatically operates the train brakes. Maybe this is a modern system and could not have been applied to train #3314.

    Finally, this accident proved that although there were two men in the cab; there are occasions when one man leaves the loco; so it would have been prudent to have a deadman control. This can be a floor pedal that is kept depressed by the engineer’s foot, if for any reason he moves his foot off the pedal; the brakes are automatically applied. It can also be incorporated into the main speed controller, with the same principles. Is this not a fundamental safety precaution, even with two men in the cab?

    But sure, isn’t hind sight a great thing!

    Websites Visited

    1. thegauge: Bridge disaster.

    2. NJnews: Look back in pictures

    3. bridgehunter: Bridge operating images and reports

    4. gmheritagecenter: GP7’s History.

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    Memorial

    In 2008 The Bayonne Historical Society held a memorial to the victims of the 1958 Newark Rail Disaster that occurred 50 years earlier in 1958.

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