Modern Marvels: Train Wrecks

Modern Marvels: Train Wrecks

History Channel

Format: DVD

Length: 45 minutes

Time Period: 1800’s- 1950’s

Locations: USA

Here is an episode from the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series.

Train Wrecks is about history the nation’s train wrecks. Not all doom and gloom, the resulting development of many safety enhancements and inventions are discussed. However, the darkside of railroading is explored in this program.

A large piece of the show has the dangerous travel of the 1800’s featured. Using mostly illustrations and some reenactment film sequences, the century is covered thoroughly. Some music and interviews are used in this PBS style presentation.

Narration is professional. An excellent script and smooth delivery, add substance to the show. There are experts, family members, authors and scholars who share facts and their thoughts on many relevant subjects.

Very early railway construction was a hurried process. Strap rail and slipshod construction was the cause of many wrecks. Loose animals on trackage also caused problems. The cowcatcher was one of the first domestic safety appliances fitted to steam locomotives.

Railroads grew quickly in the United States in the 19th century. Staggering wreck totals were estimated by a national report at 8,216 in 1875.

The New York Express had a faulty axle on the last car. It plunged off a bridge. The hot coals set the wooden coaches on fire. Ice kept rescuers from reaching the crashed trains passengers.This became known as The Angola Horror.

Construction was another factor At Ashtabula Ohio in 1876, a doubleheader steam led passenger train lost all but the lead locomotive on a bridge collapse. 83 people died and 73 went missing.

In November of 1883 a national railroad meeting was held to determine standard time. The General Time Convention agreed on time zones that would be applied nationwide. This was a major step to safer travel. Collisions were greatly reduced as local timetables on different railroads now would match. Over 100 local railroad times were eliminated.

The Westinghouse airbrake, the telegraph, steel rail and torpedo fusees, were some advances that helped with railroad safety.

Yet, after 1900, with increased speeds and larger, heavier trains there were even greater hazards. Annual death tolls continued to rise to over 10,000 in 1917 alone.

The worst US train disaster was on July 9, 1918. Two trains in a head-on collision north of Nashville. NC&St.L “Nashville Wreck’, had 101 dead. Most of them were WW1 factory workers.

More notorious wrecks as the timeline moves forward. Union Pacific’s City of San Francisco remains an unsolved case of sabotage. The Pennsylvania Red Arrow in 1947. Excessive speed on a curve caused a derailment, and passenger cars flew down a mountainside. Pennsylvania’s Brokers Special derailed on a trestle in 1951. This wreck has some newsreel footage/ reporter.

Pennsylvania’s Federal Express was a GG-1 led runaway in 1953. It crashed into the terminal station at Washington, DC. The locomotive fell through the floor and into the basement. Amazingly, no one was killed, despite a packed station. The engine was later rebuilt and returned to service.

This is a fine program. You won’t see many of trains moving. Remember the focus is on wrecked trains. Mostly still photos with bits of film here and there. Covers the subject matter in a professional, broadcast quality manner.

Rating: 4 Stars


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