Road Warrior: 1895 Paris train crash suggests change at Hoboken Terminal
Without comment last week, NJ Transit issued an unusual bulletin directing rail personnel — usually conductors — to move up to the driving cabs as engineers pull commuter trains into the Hoboken and Atlantic City terminals so they can ensure that a “train is operated safely.”
It was the kind of idea that NJT rider Jim Sevier suggested as we rode the Pascack Valley Line on the day after a crash on the same line killed a woman bystander, injured scores of others and tore down part of Hoboken Terminal when a train barreled through an end-of-the-line bumper stop last month.
What does he know? I thought, focusing mostly on the cost involved if more personnel were needed to staff all the trains going in and out of Hoboken and Atlantic City. After all, why focus solely on these two busy stations? And what do conductors know about piloting trains anyway?
It turns out that riders and conductors know more than we think.
An onboard black-box recorder showed that the engineer inexplicably sped up as his train neared the terminal. And research shows that conductors have been assisting engineers for generations in cases like this, as evidenced by a spectacular, well-documented, end-of-the-line crash in France that killed another female bystander back around the same time the Hoboken Terminal was being planned.
The circumstances in both crashes are eerily comparable.
First, the big building, where trains have been arriving and departing in Hoboken since 1907, and the building that once served this function in Paris in the 19th century are often misnamed. As rail riders like Jim Sevier know, they’re train terminals, not train stations. That’s because Hoboken and Atlantic City are at the ends of several lines, meaning their tracks end, or terminate, at dead-end bumpers. Their next stops are reached by traveling in reverse.
“Stations have track running past them,” explained Rutherford’s Charles O’Reilly, a rail historian. “But in Hoboken, there’s nowhere to put additional line. Without bumpers, the train would run through the waiting room into the Hudson River.”
That doesn’t happen because trains slow down so they can gently reach bumper stops — except when they don’t. And when they don’t, they don’t get far. But the damage can be horrific, as evidenced by the deaths of Fabiola Bittar deKroon and Marie-Augustine Aguilard.
Many of us know about Mrs. deKroon, the 34-year-old Hoboken mother fatally struck in the head by flying debris in the terminal shortly after leaving her child at day care. But hardly anyone knows of Mrs. Aguilard, who died 121 years ago this month in a similar tragedy in Paris.
The mother of two also was a bystander. She was minding a newsstand for her husband, its proprietor, when a runaway locomotive at the nearby Montparnasse Station crashed through a window above her.
According to reports of that era, the engineer was approaching the terminal too fast when brakes failed. The conductor — or guard, as he was called then — was responsible for applying the hand brake. As in the Hoboken crash, the train hurtled past its bumper stop, damaged much of the building and passed through a second-floor window.
As with Mrs. deKroon, falling debris killed Mrs. Aguilard. In the latter case, her husband was fetching the evening newspapers.
There may be some lessons here for 21st-century rail riders as the Hoboken Terminal resumes partial duty on Monday.
Both the engineer and the guard in the Paris tragedy were found guilty of negligence. Each paid a modest fine. The guard, it turned out, was too busy with paperwork to pull the emergency hand brake.
Was he properly trained? Accounts of that era don’t say.
But other artifacts survive: spectacular black-and-white photos of the locomotive, which landed headfirst into the pavement. They are on display at the Musée d’Orsay and show the train leaning vertically against the terminal. One of the photos appears on the dust jacket of a college textbook and on several railroad websites. These pictures so impressed movie director Martin Scorsese that he recreated the crash for a dream sequence in his 2011 Oscar-nominated film, “Hugo.”
Speaking to us 121 years later, these enduring images might be a compelling warning about an old danger that seldom strikes, yet still lives on at terminals with bumper stops in New York City, Washington, Hoboken, Chicago and Atlantic City. In Hoboken’s case, despite recent refurbishing, the station’s old stop-bumper design still allows commuters to gather near trains as they stop.
It’s not likely to change, regardless of the emotion generated whenever this design weakness contributes to unnecessary pain and horror. We know this — not because NJ Transit executives say so, but because riders who routinely use Hoboken Terminal told us so in an informal Road Warrior poll. Many said they wanted new, improved bumpers, automatic train control, less-crowded trains, better transit leadership and lower fares, yet they were largely satisfied with Hoboken’s design despite the tragedy of Sept. 29.
You don’t have to be a student of baseball history like Mount Arlington reader Conrad Macina to appreciate this mindset, but it helps.
“I’m sure I know which side most commuters would come down on given the choice between getting a train 30 seconds sooner or being protected against an event that has happened almost as many times in the last 109 years as a Chicago Cubs World Series championship,” said the Morris and Essex Line rider.
Here are typical arguments:
“I’m not sure how you would route people away from the ends of the track without building a whole new station,” wrote Tim McCreight of Park Ridge.
“Hustling riders off the area where trains arrive … will cause overcrowding and massive reconstruction at an ungodly cost,” said Harold Seneker of Fair Lawn.
“Any redesign would require millions,” claimed Waldwick’s Bob Taschler.
“Billions!” insisted Mike Siegel, also of Fair Lawn. “And it wouldn’t increase rider capacity.”
“Far more people are killed at grade crossings,” observed Timothy Buchman of Wyckoff.
NJ Transit should focus on crowding, added Paul Rubacky. “Since the crash, it’s been standing-room-only on buses and trains till 8 at night,” complained the Ringwood reader.
True enough on all counts. But once perfect consensus is achieved, and perfect technology solutions are in place, and every train car is perfectly calibrated to always leave room for at least one or two more passengers, shouldn’t we put a little energy into keeping people out of harm’s way on those odd occasions when human error or robotic failure sends another train roaring through Hoboken?