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Know Your Records: Railroad Accident Reports

by on February 21, 2014


Today’s post is written by David Pfeiffer, a reference archivist at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

There has always been public interest in railroad accident reports, especially by genealogists eager to learn the circumstances of an accident that an ancestor was involved in.  The National Archives at College Park textual reference has accident report summaries and accident investigation case files dating between 1911 and 1993.

A typical example of these accident reports is the accident report file of a head-on collision between two freight trains of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operating under the Chessie System near Orleans Road, West Virginia, on February 12, 1980, which was recently requested by a researcher.  The accident involved one fatality.  The fireman on the train designated Extra #4367 West was killed and three others were injured.  The engineer of Extra #6474 East was also injured.  At the time of the accident, the weather was clear and the temperature was 30 degrees.

The following is a chronology of the accident according to excerpts from the accident report.   After testing the brakes, the train of Extra #6374 East left Cumberland, Maryland, at 4:50 a.m., with two locomotives, 111 cars, and a caboose and a crew of four, including the engineer, conductor, brakeman and flagman.   Extra #4367, which had originated in Philadelphia, left Brunswick, Maryland, at 4:21 a.m., with two locomotives, 42 loaded flat cars, and a caboose.  The crew consisted of an engineer, fireman, brakeman, conductor, and flagman.   The report states:

“[Extra 4367 West] was on the left hand track (#2 Main) at about 45 miles per hour and passed a signal at Milepost 137 that was observed displaying an approach indication.  A brake application was made with the intention of stopping clear of the westward signal located just west of Milepost 139 (near Orleans Road)… The engineer dimmed his lights after seeing a reflection on the tracks.  He thought that the approaching train was on the other (#1 Main) track.  Visibility on the curve was restricted to about 400 yards by a wooded ridge on the inside of the curve.  After realizing that a collision was imminent, there was very little time to take action.  The train was travelling at 30 mph when the collision occurred approximately 1/2 mile east of MP 139.  The leading locomotive was derailed and the right side was demolished by trailing cars in the train which overran the unit.  The second locomotive and seven cars derailed, however the rest of the train was undamaged.”

Since the engineer of Extra 6474 East sustained brain injuries, the precise order of events from the standpoint of that train could not be determined.  Apparently, however, the speed of the train increased after passing a signal displaying an approach (slow down and stop at the next signal) aspect.  The speed of the train was 24 mph at the time of the collision, which resulted in the derailment of both locomotives and ten cars.

Estimated damages to equipment and track consisted of four locomotives, 18 freight cars, and track for a total of $1,579,550.  The official cause of the accident according to the field investigator was that the “engineman of Extra 6474 East failed to operate the train in accordance with signal indications.”

This accident report file (A-4-80) was included in the Accident Investigation Report Files, 1969-93, in the records of the Federal Railroad Administration (Record Group 399) which are by far the largest series of accident reports (172 cubic feet).  These files typically include the factual accident report, copies of the railroad rules and regulations that relate to the accident, other railroad publications including timetables, statements of witnesses to the accident, railroad test and inspection data reports, railroad bulletins and notices, railroad investigation reports, and drawings and photographs of the wreckage at the accident site.  These records have not been completely processed and there are privacy issues especially with medical information and witness reports in the files.

The National Archives at College Park textual reference has custody of several record series of railroad accident reports.  In the records of the Interstate Commerce Commission (Record Group 134), there are the Railroad Accident Investigation Reports, 1911-63.  These records include summaries of accident report investigations. In the records of the Federal Railroad Administration (Record Group 399), there are several series of reports, including the Reports of Investigations of Railroad Accidents, 1950-64, and the Published Accident Reports, 1947-60, which are additional summaries.  The Railroad Accident Investigation Jackets, 1969-71, and the aforementioned Accident Investigation Report Files, 1969-93, include the actual case files of the accident investigations.

There are also Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) accident report databases, dating after 1968, in the custody of the National Archives Center for Electronic Records.

The researcher of these records should keep in mind that in order to search these records, textual reference needs to know the name of the railroad and the location and date of the accident.  Textual reference also needs to know whether the Federal Railroad Administration or the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident, if the accident is dated after 1968.  If the accident investigation was done by the NTSB, the National Archives does not have custody of the records.

If you are interested in requesting information from or copies of railroad accident reports, please contact archives2reference@nara.gov.

In addition, it is useful to note that the railroad accident reports summaries, dating 1911 to 1994, are available full-text online on the USDOT Library Special Collections website at http://specialcollection.dotlibrary.dot.gov/.


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