Railroad history repeats itself

Train crashes, passenger deaths, grade-crossing accidents, derailments. These are not just the recent history of Metro-North, but events dating back decades.

A friend of mine loves reading the microfilms of our town’s weekly newspaper and has been feeding me clippings of all the stories about the New Haven line. The news reports sound all too familiar.

April 1939: Two lads on their way to hunt bullfrogs are almost killed crossing the railroad tracks near Noroton Heights.

January 1944: An empty train heading to New Haven smashes into a stopped local train at Darien, creating an explosion heard two miles away. The engineer is killed and 14 passengers are injured.

February 1944 (and many subsequent dates): A delivery truck runs off the road at the Hoyt Street crossing on the New Canaan branch, gets caught on the tracks and drove into an oncoming train.

January 1949: A 10-year-old playing with a length of wire comes in contact with the 11,000-volt overhead caternary. The resulting flash frightens but does not harm him.

December 1954: A Darien man exits Ernie’s Tavern and clambers up an embankment to cross the railroad tracks. Struck by a New York-bound express, he suffers a broken leg.

July 1955: Service has become so bad on the New Haven RR that Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, petitions the Interstate Commerce Commission to fine the railroad “as a hazard to public safety.” Cousins complains that trains are so crowded that a dozen passengers must ride standing in the vestibule while others ride in the washrooms.

July 1955: New Haven RR President Patrick McGinnis tells the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce that local commuters will now have to pay $5 a month for station parking. “I’m a businessman,” he tells them. “I’m not the Ford Foundation.”

October 1955: A flash flood washes out tracks near Noroton Heights just as a 78-car freight train passes thru at 35 mph, derailing 23 of the cars and causing $10 million in damage. Round-the-clock repairs continue for months.

February 1957: A Bridgeport man, running to catch a train, sees it pulling out of the station and chases after it. Grabbing the door of the last car, he’s unable to board and falls to the tracks.

January 1958: Within hours of each other, two locomotives catch fire in the Park Avenue tunnel, shutting down all train service in and out of Grand Central.

July 1958: The a.m. commute is disrupted when 11 cars of a freight train derail near Bridgeport.

December 1958: Citing mounting losses, the New Haven RR threatens to eliminate commuter service unless it receives $900,000 from Connecticut counties and gets New York to waive $1 million in taxes on Grand Central. Railroad President George Alpert warns “I do not propose longer to peril the New Haven RR by subsidizing NYC, Westchester and Connecticut.” [The NHRR goes into bankruptcy (for the second time) in 1961].

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone. You may reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com. For the full collection of “Talking Transportation”columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.