On the evening of February 6, 1951, the Pennsylvania Railroad express passenger train known as The Broker derailed and wrecked in Woodbridge Township, killing 85 and injuring hundreds more in what remains New Jersey's deadliest railroad accident. Historian and author Gordon Bond has written a comprehensive book about this event, "Man Failure: The Story of New Jersey's Deadliest Train Wreck." This website is intended to augment that book by providing additional features and information as well as a forum for others to share their memories and experiences with this tragic event.
This is a digitized compilation of movies taken at the scene of the wreck and the aftermath. If you know who shot this footage or recognize anyone appearing therein, please contact Gordon Bond.
In order to keep the published book's length manageable, the author took out the accounts of the investigations that were not germane to the cause of the wreck. This chapter is included here.
Eighty-five people were killed in the Woodbridge train wreck and hundreds more were injured, were part of the rescue efforts, or experienced the event in some way. Naturally, not everyone could possibly be included in the book. Part of why this website has been created is so that such people still have an opportunity to share their stories to the public record. To add a story, scroll down to the "Share Your Story!" form. Once approved, they will be added below.
Gordon Bond is the Founder and ePublisher of Garden State Legacy, a free online quarterly magazine and resources website dedicated to New Jersey history. As an author and lecturer, Bond has written several books focusing on New Jersey history. Other areas of research include Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African-American to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment; Rev. Hannibal Goodwin, the inventor of flexible role film; the 1926 Carteret race riot; and, along with his wife, Stephanie M. Hoagland, New Jersey's folk grave marker tradition.
Not everything could be included in the book. Below are additional images and special videos!
Trestle & Tracks
The working theory was speed. Initial evidence suggested The Broker hit the curve onto the temporary track significantly faster than the prescribed 25-miles-per-hour. That was the conclusion of the ICC investigation, laying the blame on Fitzsimmons and leaving it at that. The PUC investigators, along with the State Attorney General’s Office, however, wanted to know why an experienced and skilled engineer appeared to have been speeding.
As a state-level regulatory agency, the role of the PUC was to safeguard the traveling public and look for lessons to apply towards making rail travel in New Jersey safer. PUC Commissioner John E. Boswell explained at the hearing’s opening “we feel there are four important points that must be covered in this type of investigation. Of course, basically, we must determine the cause of the wreck. In that connection, we want first to develop the primary cause. Second, we want to determine what other causes, secondary or otherwise, may have contributed toward the wreck. Third, we want to examine [and] determine other causes that perhaps did not directly contribute to the wreck, but that may have existed or that may exist, and [fourth] whether or not such causes were factors which in any way could have contributed to that accident or could possibly contribute to any other accident.”
Speaking for the railroad, Adelbert Schroeder made a statement: “I think it appropriate at this time to give you my position on the matter. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company deplores this accident and its management is most sympathetic with the families and friends of the victims of this disaster. The railroad management, with all the resources at its command, is actively searching out the possibilities of preventing similar accidents in the future, and is, therefore, most anxious to assist this inquiry, in the hope that this investigation may develop facts not known to it which may be useful in determining its future course of action. We are perfectly willing to cooperate 100 per cent, sir.”
This was perfunctory and for public consumption. People in the PRR could feel empathy towards the afflicted, but they had no intention of assuming the blame and were prepared to fight the PUC on regulations.
The ICC’s hearings ran from February 8, 1951 through February 12, 1951; the PUC’s from February 15, 1951 through April 16, 1951. Subjects of the investigation were examined in necessarily haphazard order, dependent on witness availability. It would be far too convoluted to describe the hearings in chronological order. What follows will instead treat the event by its constituent themes, as the two bodies picked their way through how bridges get built, tracks get laid, and how, when mortal men operate railroads, it can all go so terribly wrong.
“We used to drive under it,” Frank LaPenta recalls, “and we’d look up and say, ‘Geez, I wouldn’t want to be under this thing when a train went over’.”
Among the intuitive rumors to emerge in the hours following the wreck was the temporary wooden trestle across Legion Place had collapsed. Though it hadn’t, post-wreck photos showed the rails swept from the bridge, leaving cars hanging precariously. The PUC needed to examine what role, if any, it might have played. At one point, Boswell even asked about the species of Douglas fir used for the piles.
The trestle’s blueprints were drawn up by Howard J. Williams, a Boston consulting engineer the Turnpike hired. Dated 1947, they indicated it was designed to bear “K-4 loading”—the weight of the K4s, the heaviest locomotive the PRR had in service on that line at the time.
There was no reason to suspect the trestle, so attention was turned to the track it carried over Legion Place. It was a portion of a curve off the main line and into the parallel temporary track—the middle of a stretched out letter “S” shape. It was the curve that introduced a small but critical detail on the trestle—something called “super-elevation.”
The principle of super-elevation is readily-apparent in the steeply-banked turns of auto racetracks. The surface is sloped so the the outside curve edge is higher than the inside. On a flat surface, as a car turns at high speed, centrifugal force will make it want to continue straight, causing it to slide off the track or, depending on the center of gravity, topple over. By angling the surface, centrifugal force is directed to instead pull the car down into that surface, maintaining traction. The steepness of the racetrack banking is exaggerated because of the high average speeds, but the same principle is used on highways.
There are also other reasons for super-elevation in tracks. Even at slower speeds centrifugal forces can make for uncomfortable passenger rides or cause freight to dangerously shift. Additionally, without super-elevation, the friction of the flanges on the rails, over time, causes wear and increase the necessity of costly maintenance.
A one-inch super-elevation was built into the Woodbridge trestle. What bothered Benjamin C. Van Tine, however, was how there was nothing in the plans to indicate that super-elevation. Brann and Stuart Company was hired by the Turnpike to oversee things, and it was their superintendent of construction, Robert McGilvar, who was questioned about it.
In the world McGilvar and other contractors occupied, this wasn’t unusual. “I have never seen a set of construction plans that provided for every contingency,” he told Boswell.5 There was, as a matter of course, a degree of flexibility in specifications, depending on realities found on the ground during actual construction—there needed to be. Be that as it may, however, Van Tine wanted to know how did this change come about? What procedures and rules did they follow?
“There is no super-elevation shown either in the track approaching the trestle,” McGilvar told them, “but in conference with Mr. McNally, the PRR supervisor, he instructed me that he wanted to put one-inch super elevation in the curve coming up the track and that is the reason we put the one-inch super elevation in the trestle.”
Harry J. McNally was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Supervisor of Track and responsible for overseeing the laying of tracks (more of him later). He had given McGilvar a verbal order to add the one-inch. But what might be normal and proper flexibility to McGilvar looked like casual sloppiness to Van Tine and even Boswell.
Super-elevation depended on three factors, McGilvar described—the degree of curve, the weight of the heaviest locomotive that would travel on it, and the maximum speed they desired. When the 1947plans were drawn up, the first two factors were known—a five-degree curve and a K4s steam locomotive. What they hadn’t determined was the speed. McGilvar told Boswell, “that if the railroad and the Turnpike had not agreed, previously to the letting of this contract, on what speed they were going to run trains on this runaround, then they would have been at fault to put an exact super elevation in the contract drawings.”
Van Tine’s issue, however, was in how such important decisions had been communicated via a casual verbal order. To the men who did this work every day, it was as much art as science. Experience taught a perfectly safe train trestle could be built without forms and by-the-book rules. There was almost a sense of resentment at such judgments passed by a bunch of bureaucrats on professional craftsmen.
That was the sentiment of George H. Perry, the PRR’s Master Carpenter, who inspected the work on the trestle some four or five times between November 15th and December 15th of 1950. He had made one last inspection the morning of February 6, 1951 before the track was opened. He confirmed that the required one inch super-elevation was ineed built into it. “[Y]ou must appreciate the fact,” Perry told Van Tine, “that the fellows who are put out there to build this trestle are not school children. We know that those things [super-elevation] have to be on the radius of the curve, so we build it that way. After years of training and working with a standard plan, we know very definitely where it will work.”
“There is no super-elevation shown in this plan,” Perry confirmed, “but there is nothing on this plan that says you can’t put it in there...I might like to add one thing, and that is, that by placing that super-elevation in that structure, it in no way took any stability away from the structure. In my opinion, it added to it.”
“I established that elevation,” Kenneth J. Silvey told the PUC. As Division Engineer for the PRR’s New York Division, he was responsible for specifying both the one-inch super-elevation and the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. He and McNally consulted on what the situation required. He was responsible that the trestle was built “in a safe manner to permit us to operate over it.”
Van Tine’s indignation grew when the PUC brought up William Grant Lightner, the inspector for the civil engineering firm, Fay, Spofford & Thorndike, hired by the Turnpike Authority to drive the trestle’s piles. He was responsible for inspecting they had been properly driven, yet admitted he wasn’t aware there even was a one-inch super-elevation until he heard the previous day’s testimony. He considered it a “minor change in the specifications”—nothing that would change how the piles were driven. All he was concerned with was the load bearing capacity.
“That’s what I can’t understand,” Boswell responded. “How did you escape from knowing that the piles had been cut off?”
“Well, as I said before, you can hardly detect it by the eye,” Lightner asserted. “One inch in 14-feet is little, little as far as seeing it with the eye is concerned.”
Van Tine’s boss, State Attorney General Theodore Parsons attended the early PUC hearings and noted inconsistency between the Pennsylvania Railroad’s numbers and what other railroads specified for five-degree curves.
“If you have...other railroads within the state, for a 5-degree curve, prescribe a 3-inch super-elevation for a 25-mile-an-hour speed, isn’t that a bigger factor of safety than a 1-inch super-elevation?” Parsons asked McNally.
McNally seems to have been taken by surprise, demurring he couldn’t say for sure unless he did the computations. “May I ask you will you make the computations during the course of this hearing?” Parsons pressed. McNally said he would have a reply by in five days.
Parsons asked McNally if he was familiar with the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA) standards. McNally had certainly seen them, but did not use them. Parsons added to McNally’s homework, requested that he familiarize himself with AREA standards for determining super elevations as well.
AREA started in 1899 at Buffalo, New York, as the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). The gauge of North America’s railroads had been standardized, leading to interests in establishing other equally-standardized practices. AREA recommend “best practices,” but railroads were under no obligation to follow them. Still, the PRR’s divergence was significant enough to be questioned.
As it turned out, however, the PUC didn’t return to the subject until March 7th when Samuel R. Hursh appeared. He had been the PRR’s Assistant Chief Engineer in charge of Maintenance of Way since February of 1943 and rattled off a long resume of qualifications and railroad experience that started in 1916.
The title, “maintenance of way,” is descriptive, meaning what it implies. Not only do the track structures themselves—rails, ties, and ballast—need to be constantly inspected for wear but the paths they take need to be kept free of encroaching vegetation, cleared of snow, and inspected for erosion. The catenaries, electrical systems, switches, signals, relay boxes, bridges, and grade crossings all need to be inspected and maintained as part of the “maintenance of way.”
He was more familiar with AREA than McNally, having been a member roughly 20 years and a serving on their Rail Committee, Special Committee on Welded Rail, and as Chairman of Committee 24, “which is the committee on cooperative relations with colleges and universities, between the railroad industry and the universities.”
Schroeder produced “Exhibit 310”—the PRR’s C.E.-78 “Table of train speeds and miles per hour on curves of given degrees and with given super-elevations in inches of outer rail.” Schroeder wanted Hursh to describe how the PRR came by its specifications.
“What is in that book is not any one man’s opinion, but it is the consensus of our engineering talent, our recent chief engineers, and so on,” Hursh described. The numbers were based on an evolution of experience—and different parts of the railroad had different experiences. Even within the PRR, regional chief engineers might specify something different. He insisted this wasn’t “wrong from a safety standpoint, but it was wrong, we will say, from an efficient and economical maintenance of the railroad.”
What speed did the C.E.-78 specify for a five-degree curve and a one-inch super-elevation? Something called “equilibrium speed” was 17-miles-per-hour, while “comfortable speed” was 35-miles-per-hour; “safe speed” was 44-miles-per-hour, and “overturn speed” 76-miles-per-hour.
In other words, it depended.
Imagine a locomotive sitting on a track curving five-degrees off to right. Gravity tugs the engine’s center of gravity downward toward the exact center between the rails. As the locomotive moves around the curve, centrifugal force causes the center of gravity to pull outwards, towards the outside rail. Elevate that outside rail one inch higher than the inside and, at 17-miles-per-hour, the locomotive’s center of gravity is again pulled down towards the midpoint between the two rails. That’s “equilibrium speed.”
If the locomotive travels faster than 17-miles-per-hour, the center of gravity drifts from the midpoint again, towards the outer rail. If you take the distance between the two rails—the “gage,” which for the PRR was 4-feet, 8.5-inches—and divide into thirds, so long as the center of gravity stays within the middle third area, explained Hursh, you’re still “perfectly safe. Now, you may not get a good ride. You may not get a comfortable ride...It is not unsafe...But it is not a comfortable ride.”
According to the PRR’s table, a passenger train could travel as fast as 35-miles-per-hour on that five-degree curve with one-inch super-elevation and the riders would not feel any strain—that’s “comfortable speed.” It could go as fast as 44-miles-per-hour and, while not comfortable for passengers, still not be in any danger of tipping over.
With each mile-per-hour faster, however, that center of gravity is pulling down outside of the inner third between rails. At 76-miles-an-hour, it crosses the outer rail and centrifugal force will topple the locomotive over and off the tracks.16
A train going 45-miles-an-hour, however, isn’t going to behave much different than at the prescribed 44. Steam locomotives did not have speedometers, so there was an expected margin of error that was accounted for in the tables.
While safety may have been paramount and passenger comfort important, economy also drove things. Hursh described how one regional supervisor was “a low-elevation hound” who preferred to keep super-elevation on the low side “because he wanted to save the wear on the low rails.” His line had a lot of high tonnage freight traffic. “Yet we would come along with our blue ribbon [passenger] trains at night at a high speed and while there was nothing unsafe—we weren’t even bordering on the unsafe part—we were getting an uncomfortable ride.” It was decided as a result to revise the tables in 1947.
In response to Parson’s questions why the PRR differed from AREA, Hursh told him, “I am not saying [AREA] is wrong, but...what we have is better than the AREA from safety and comfort.”
The difference came down to one number in a basic formula. AREA calculated elevations for curves using E=0.00066 DV2, where “E” is the elevation in inches, “D” is the degree of curve and “V” is the velocity of the train in feet-per-second. The PRR, however, used E=0.0007 DV2. The reason for this small but important difference—0.0007 versus 0.00066—according to Hursh, was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s rolling stock had a lower center of gravity than assumed by the AREA formula: 80-inches above rail, as opposed to the AREA’s 84-inches.
In a system as vast as the PRR, there were many possible combinations of circumstances that needed to be accounted for. “We have many curves,” Hursh explained, “many portions of track upon which we operate high-speed passenger trains and at the same time we operate tonnage freight trains at a speed of 50 miles an hour, and from efficient and economical maintenance, we arrive—I think we have arrived at what is a happy medium or a good medium—cut out the word ‘happy’—a good medium with due consideration to the comfort of our passengers.” Indeed, the PRR operated at 10-miles-per hour slower than the AREA specs would permit—25-miles-an-hour as opposed to the AREA’s 35.
Van Tine still wasn’t satisfied. He insisted Hursh write to all comparable railroads to enquire what speed and super-elevation each specified for a five-degree curve and what formula they used. At the March 20, 1951 PUC session, Hursh was ready.
“I didn’t tell them why I wanted it or anything,” Hursh assured Van Tine, though given how The Broker wreck made headlines throughout the county, it seems unlikely they wouldn’t have worked it out. Hursh dutifully sent his queries to the chief engineers of the Louisville & Nashville; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington Line, Atlantic Coast Line; Chesapeake & Ohio; New York, New Haven & Hartford; Union Pacific; Seaboard Air Line; Chicago & [Northwestern]; New York Central; Reading; Lehigh Valley, DL&W and Erie railroads.
There were almost as many different answers as railroads. Had it been the Union Pacific building things at Woodbridge, their formula required an elevation of 1.54-inches. The Lehigh Valley Railroad would have had a half-inch while the Lackawanna had three-quarters of an inch. Like the PRR, Southern Pacific abandoned AREA the formulae for their own concoction yielding a 17-miles-per-hour limit for steam locomotives and a 28-miles-per-hour for their diesels, owing to differing centers of gravity. Reading Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey each went with a more complicated formula of E = 0.00066 DV2 X 0.75 + 0.01°.
And yet none of these railroads were any more prone to wrecks than the PRR.
When Van Tine asked Hursh if he knew of any railroad—aside from the B&O—that strictly adhered to the AREA equilibrium speed formula, Hursh replied, “[p]ractically none. I don’t think any. They use the AREA [formula] and then adjust that, which these letters will show, to the physical characteristics on their railroad; that is, the type of train, the grade and whether they are operating freight and passenger on the same track or whether they have freight on one track and confine passenger to another.”
“My examination of these plans disclosed that they are not representing the construction as built as of today,” Kenneth J. Silvey, the PRR’s Chief Engineer, told Adelbert Schroeder at the PUC hearing, referring to the 1947 plans.
“But do they show the location of the run-around as built?” Schroeder asked.
Van Tine jumped on this. Why couldn’t the PRR produce a set of standard “as-built” plans showing the tracks and trestle The Broker went over?
Schroeder instead entered “Exhibit 322,” plans drawn up the previous day. “The data was obtained by an actual survey which was made after the wreck,” he told the hearing, as if that might impress them. Both Boswell and Van Tine objected—they wanted to see what the turn-out looked like between when it was built and the wreck, not after when the force of the accident might have shifted things.
“I am withdrawing the plan,” he said almost immediately, perhaps realizing its inadequacy. “If you want to put another plan in, I have no objection to it.”
“I am not going to let it be quite that easy,” Boswell interjected. “There must be some reason why you are withdrawing this plan other than the mere fact that it was challenged by the Attorney General because, after it was so challenged, Mr. Silvey said that he was capable of fully defending the plan.”
Van Tine mocked the plans as being “not ‘as-built’, but ‘as-wrecked’.”
“That is correct,” Schroeder had to admit.
“I am satisfied to have him withdraw the plan, sir,” sniffed Van Tine. “If they cannot come forward and show us an as-built plan of the railroad as it existed prior to this wreck, they cannot prove that they did not have a 5-degree curve going off a flat area.”
“I would like to have the man who took the transit readings and his original notes produced at this hearing,” Van Tine insisted. He wanted to examine the surveyor who determined where the tracks would be laid.
The problem was, however, the PRR didn’t know where those notes were.
The man responsible was Lawrence Edward Williams, Jr., but he had since been transferred from the New York Division to Aspinwall, Pennsylvania.
“For his good job in this case, I take it?” sneered Van Tine.
“It was a good job, yes sir,” Schroeder replied coolly.
Aside from having to call Williams back from Pennsylvania, Schroeder was “not even sure that he has retained these field notes.”
“What I want is field notes that were taken by the men who actually built the railroad,” Van Tine repeated. “Now, certainly, they are not building a railroad by rule-of-thumb. They must be doing it in the way that other people do it—by taking field notes.”
“Did you ever hear of field notes being destroyed so soon after an accident, before you even had your as-built plans made?” Van Tine asked, not without an air of implied suspicion.
The differences between the 1947 plans and what was constructed were great enough that Schroeder had to object when Van Tine wanted to use them to make a point about distances of elements.
“I would suggest, there is no purpose in going on,” concluded Van Tine. “If they cannot even agree upon simple distances, there is something I believe that they are trying to conceal.”
“You are absolutely wrong,” Schroeder protested.
Schroeder was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s point man, but he wasn’t alone. Among his legal team was a Democratic State Senator from Middlesex County, John E. Toolan—and something of an emotional firebrand himself. Back in 1945, he had openly threatened to take his case to the Supreme Court over a contested provisional license the State Racing Commission had given too easily to a Raritan Township horse track.30 It worked. The Commission agreed to start a new round of controversial hearings.
Van Tine’s blatant accusation of a cover-up was more than Toolan could bear in silence. “I think that a charge that the railroad is endeavoring to conceal anything should be stricken from the record,” he stood up and declared, “because everything that has been produced in this case up to this point, as I understand it, has been produced voluntarily by the railroad at the request of the Attorney General. Now, Mr. Schroeder has stated over and over again here this morning that he will put in proof of things which the Attorney General asks. It happens at the moment that he apparently is not prepared to do so, and I do not think that from that any charge should be made that the railroad is endeavoring to conceal anything. The railroad is endeavoring to reveal, because only by revealing can the cause of this accident be established.”
Boswell declined to have it struck. If Van Tine thought something was being concealed, he had a right to say so. Toolan’s concern, however, was the accusation taking a life of its own in the press who were present throughout. Conceding Toolan’s point, Van Tine stated, “I did not make a statement for public consumption. I would request that the press would not use such a thing. I will agree to have it stricken from the record, if you will strike it from the record, and I would pray the indulgence of the members of the press.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Toolan in a moment when cooler heads prevailed. “May I commend Mr. Van Tine on his fairness,” the Senator added.
“I am not withdrawing my request that there must be a plan before,” Van Tine still insisted, “and there must be a plan as-built.”
“And I am not withdrawing my agreement to furnish that to you,” asserted Schroeder.
The 1947 trestle plans that Fay, Spofford & Thorndike created for the Turnpike Authority were based on plans drawn by the office of Lewis P. Struble, Chief Engineer for the PRR’s Eastern Division. Schroeder asked if the 1947 plans reasonably matched what his office had laid out.
I know the run-around was not built exactly on the alignment that is shown on here,” Struble told him.
Van Tine’s ears must have perked up. “You say that the construction was not done according to these plans,” he cross-examined Struble. “Will you please explain that, sir?”
“Based on what I have heard in the testimony, the alignment that was followed in staking out the run-around track did not conform in all respects to the alignment shown on these three sheets.”
“How, then, do you explain that your people deviated from the construction of the run-around, deviated from the actual plans which had been prepared by yourself?”
The track did more than just turn five-degrees; it also changed in overall elevation, ending a little lower than it started when it met the straight tangent of the trestle. If the path the track traced was extended, it would trace out a spiral. In this case, it amounted to raising the rails a half-inch every 31 feet. On flat, two-dimensional plans, the straight section across the trestle worked out to be 173-feet long. The addition of the spiral in real life, however, required it be 173.47-feet. There was a 0.47-foot discrepancy between what the plans called for and what had actually been built.
But this was about to get way messier than a difference of 0.47-feet.
Lawrence Edward Williams, Jr. was, at last, back from Pennsylvania. He had been with the PRR for just a little over two-and-a-half years, having graduated Penn State with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1948. He started as a junior engineer on the New York Division based in their New Brunswick, NJ, office. He had been the man who surveyed the landscape and staked out the course by which the tracks were laid.
Williams’ field notes had been left at New Brunswick, but he had been unable to find them when he returned.
“Do you have any idea where those notes are today?” Schroeder asked.
“No, sir, I do not.”
This was bad news for Schroeder, but it was about to get worse.
Williams described how the process began with establishing a baseline from which everything else would be measured—in this case, the centerline of the Turnpike. He soon noticed a problem.
“After laying this out,” he described, “I found that it did not clear the catenary pole by the desired distance.” A catenary system held electrical wires aloft over the main line and the temporary track needed to thread between them. The centerline of the track had to be at minimum 12-feet, 4.24-inches away from any poles. If he followed the plans, however, Williams discovered the track would come too near one of them.
“Does it tell you that on the map, or plan?” Van Tine asked.
“It does not specify that,” Williams replied. “Therefore, after consulting with my supervisor, it was decided that we would move this point of curve up onto the curve farther and, therefore, we would change this tangent line here enough so that we would give ourselves the required clearance on that pole.”
“It is the tangent between the two curves where the accident is supposed to have occurred,” Van Tine pointed out. “This is the tangent between the two curves that you moved in order to miss the catenary?”
“That is the tangent between the first and second curve on the east end,” Williams confirmed. In brief, what this meant was the first curve was shorter, requiring a 70-foot longer tangent! This was a major difference, and Van Tine was again concerned by how it was communicated.
“That was done just by word from Mr. McNally?” he asked.
“I got the correct distance here by word from my supervisor,” Williams replied.
Such a discrepancy only fueled Van Tine’s incredulousness over what appeared to him to be the casual manner changes were handled. He expected them to have made a survey and plan of the construction to check against specifications. Schroeder had Hursh explain why they had not.
“The only reason we would make an as-built plan, which we did not in this instance, if this track that we constructed was the property of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had been authorized by our board and was a permanent piece of track, after it was constructed, we would make and furnish our valuation department an as-built plan plus all the financial details or charges involved.”
It was an accounting requirement mandated by the ICC to audit for depreciation. This was a temporary construction. “Therefore, there was no as-built plan made,” Hursh explained. “There was no intention of ever making one.”
Van Tine wanted to know how they knew the tracks were safe for use. The clash asserted itself between a bureaucrat’s insistence on rules and a craftsman’s reliance on experience. It was almost an insult to their professionalism. Hursh explained that the men responsible were all qualified and competent, adding defensively, “if we cannot rely upon our officers, whose basic principles as to honesty and as to their profession—if we can’t rely on that, then we better stop railroading.”
“Yes, but isn’t there man failure or human error among engineers,” Van Tine pressed, “even though I hate to think that there is?”
Hursh, however, saw the construction as akin to a simple siding—something they were thoroughly competent and qualified to build. Van Tine insisted there should be men to check those men—redundancy to insure a safe track before opening it for transporting the public.
“You can carry that to an absurdity—who checked the men who checked the men in the field. That can be carried on ad infinitum,” Schroder pointed out. Even in the straightforward style of hearing transcripts, the tension between Schroeder and Van Tine is palpable.
When you stop and think about it, railroad tracks are amazing structures—ribbons of steel held in near-perfect parallel mile after mile, over a variety of terrain. They must be strong enough to withstand forces pulling and pushing them from multi-ton trains, guiding them safely at high speeds, up and down inclines, and around bends. The steel rails withstand stresses even the tallest skyscrapers’ beams never encounter. Then there are the ties—beams of wood (or recently concrete) to which rails are spiked, all nestled into a ballast substrate that has to hold it all together. Since the failure of any one of these elements could have contributed to the wreck of The Broker, the PUC spent much time looking into how the Woodbridge tracks were built.
By happy geological circumstance, Woodbridge was established on land infused with rich clay deposits—so rich, a diverse ceramics industry was its primary economic engine into the early 20th century. By 1951, however, most kilns were long-since shut down, though clay was still just a shovelful beneath the surface.
Where the railway embankment met the cut for the highway, it was expanded in width to accommodate the temporary track, as well as a parallel street bridge to carry Fulton Street to the opposite side. The New Jersey Highway Department contracted the work to S. J. Groves & Son. The Department’s Principle Engineer, Emery Dedrick described the soil as “a sort of gravelly and clay.” It was harder to work with, but the result was stronger for it. “That’s why we had to roll it in such small layers” he explained, “to aerate it and take the moisture out of it and compact it so that it was hard and it produced a fill which, in my opinion, was as hard as concrete.”
Later in the PUC hearings, Harry J. McNally, the PRR’s Supervisor of Track, was questioned about the soil. “There was a definite clay content in a sand and gravel composition,” he told them, “which would tend to have it bind together very well.” It was, in his estimation, “excellent” soil. Between 1948 and his last inspections before the track was opened, he saw only “[s]light erosion,” and concluded the soil itself and the manner in which the fill was done did not contribute to the wreck.
The lifetime of a length of steel rail depended on the amount and weight of the traffic that rolled over it. The average for a new steel rail could be as little as eight years to as long as fifty or more. Samuel Hursh explained to the PUC that it was not uncommon to reuse a worn rail with no serious defects on a siding or in a yard where trains traveled at very slow speed.
PRR had records of the pedigree of every length of rail in their system and those used at Woodbridge were manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company in April of 1942. They sat on the Philadelphia Division’s main line, near Coatsville, from August 1942 until August 1950, when they were taken up and sent to New Jersey. They were called “cropped rail,” because often the lengths would be cut down—cropped—to remove the worn ends from an otherwise still serviceable length of rail.
While Van Tine would naturally question the use of recycled rails on the turn-out and temporary tracks, Hursh assured him it was perfectly safe. They were intended to be used for less than a year, under trains traveling no more than 25-miles-per-hour.
The standard gage distance between the rails for U.S. railroads was established after the Civil War at 4-feet, 8.5-inches. Since the flanges of train wheels straddle that distance to remain on the tracks, it is critical the gage be maintained. What keeps the rails at that gage is how they are attached to the ties under them.
The PRR employed two methods for spiking rails to ties. One was to simply drive individual spikes along the bottom edge of the rail, so the spike’s top hooked onto the lower lip of the I-shaped profile. The other was a metal “tie-plate,” the edge of which hooked onto the rail and spikes would be driven through pre-drilled holes into the ties. The tie-plates on the trestle at Woodbridge had two holes, but only one spike had been used. This would cause no small amount of contention between Attorney General Parsons and McNally.
It began when Boswell asked McNally what the Pennsylvania Railroad’s standards were for how many spikes it required on a rail curving five degrees, as at Woodbridge. He was looking for hard rules, yet, as with so much else in railroading, it was often never simple.
“That will vary, sir.”
“The Pennsylvania Railroad—let us get this clear—do you say that the Pennsylvania Railroad, on a five-degree curve, has no standard practice for the spiking of the rails on the inside?” Parsons interjected.
“It would depend entirely on the speed and a lot of other circumstances,” McNally insisted. “It would depend where that curve was located, what purpose it was going to be used for, the speed that was going to be traveled.”
McNally had received no specific instructions permitting him to only use one spike, nor were there any indications on the plans. He used his professional judgment.
Parsons pointed out that curves in the main-line near Rahway had two spikes. “And in putting in two spikes on the Rahway curve, you did that to make it safer for the carriage of passengers, didn’t you?”
“Not necessarily,” McNally asserted.39 “Over a period of years your ties will age. At this location [Woodbridge], we installed new Grade 4 and 5 ties...one spike in that new Grade 4 and 5 tie would be worth four spikes in some tie of a greater age.”
Later during the PUC hearings, Van Tine handed Hursh some fairly dramatic photographs. They showed the temporary trestle with two derailed passenger cars suspended by unattached ribbons of rail across the gap of Legion Place. Clearly, the rails broke away from the ties and the whole track structure swept from the bridge’s deck. Something had given way.
The track structure—rails and ties—had not been fixed to the trestle. Instead, two notches were cut into the bottoms of the ties that fit over the stout beams that spanned the gap, supported by pilings. Called “dapping,” this would arrest any lateral movement of a slow-moving train.
Hursh argued that spiking and dapping was perfectly acceptable. When Van Tine handed him the photographs of the trestle, he asked, “will you tell us, in the light of what those pictures show, whether or not you wish to change your testimony with reference to the need for spiking and for attaching the ties to the stringers, in addition to dapping?”
“No, sir, I do not,” maintained Hursh. “I attribute it entirely to speed, from my experience of investigating other derailments and wrecks.” The force of The Broker lifted the notches upward and off the trestle.
Hursh confirmed the single-spiking had not complied with the C.E.-78 recommendations, but insisted the double-spiking was meant for a permanent mainline track used at higher speeds.
“If I understand you correctly,” Van Tine asked, “if this had been a permanent new alignment, you would have provided a different method of spiking and would have complied completely with the specifications?”
“We would have thrown the book at it.”
Hursh had discretion based “the amount of traffic and tonnage that goes over that track.” Changes could be made, “[w]ithin reasonable bounds.”
“Who fixes the reasonableness of their boundaries?” Boswell wanted to know.
It fell to the Regional Chief Engineer and Division Engineer. And, if they have any questions, they refer to the Chief Engineer’s office to make a final call. “I say it is practically impossible to describe, in a book of this kind,” Hursh told them, “or any other railroad, to take care of all eventualities...What I am trying to say is that I do not want the slightest inference to be made that we depreciated the value of this track from a safety standpoint. That is far from the truth. But there are only three and a half million tons going over this railroad down here in a year, and it was built to last, at the most, nine months, so we used all new ties, new spikes. We used fit tie-plates and fit rail, which was perfectly ample from a safety standpoint, and the construction was proper from a comfortable standpoint for the passenger. The only thing that was involved here was the speed of the train, the speed of the train. Had this train been operating the same as the previous trains, we would not be having this hearing.”
Perhaps the strongest point Hursh made was calling attention to the curve from the mainline onto the temporary trestle—where the tender had evidently derailed. There, the spikes had held. What had happened, however, was the entire track structure had slid horizontally some six inches, and that put focus on the ballast.
In the railroad world, ballast describes the gravel the tracks sit in. Not unlike ballast in a ship, it provides a form of stability, distributing the train’s weight on the ties and holding everything in place with enough flexibility. Additionally, it provides a semi-porous layer permitting water drainage and keeps down vegetation. Ballast must be durable and resistant to deformation under loads, but also cheap and readily-available considering the quantity required on a regular basis. In the early days, railroads experimented with plain soil, ash, chalk, and clay. Cinder was an intuitive choice, as it was the natural byproduct of steam locomotives and was still being used by the Pennsylvania Railroad and others in 1951.
Trial and error proved the best ballast was rocks—stones small enough to distribute the weight evenly but large enough to provide drainage. Angular stones were better than rounded since they would lock together and maintain their shape. Soft stone, like limestone, would wear down faster. Granite was ideal, but expensive.
The PRR used rock ballast on the mainline through Woodbridge, but cinder on the lead-up to the trestle. Attorney General Parsons asked New York Division Superintendent, Paul W. Triplett, if cinder would have been subject to compacting under the weight of the prior trains, caused a deformation for The Broker?
“No,” said Triplett categorically. “The main feature of ballast is to retain the track. Now, if it is properly back-filled and properly tamped, the only real difference between stone and cinder is possibly better drainage...Cinder ballast is every bit as safe as stone ballast. There is no safety factor in the type.”
Hursh later concurred, telling Van Tine “[w]hat kind of ballast we use depends upon the traffic, the amount of traffic that we have over the railroad.” Cinder was perfectly good for a temporary track and slow speed.”
The track—rails and ties—were built first, directly on the ground, and then jacked up and ballast shoveled in the layers beneath. Set back down onto the ballast layer, more was added to fill between and around the ties. It was tamped down and the level of the track tested. Ballast would be added or removed as necessary to achieve an even track.
Boswell asked Hursh to describe the drainage conditions he observed when he inspected the scene after the wreck. While there was mud from recent rain, the cinder ballast was relatively dry. By his estimation, it was still compacted and sound, going so far as to claim, were it not for the curve, the track structure would have been fine for trains as fast as 75- or 80-miles-per-hour.
Sometimes a “sub-ballast” of finely-crushed stones put down first, providing added stability for the ballast above and a moisture barrier. Rule 704 of the C.E.-78 stated: “Where new tracks are constructed sub-base ballast of approved material should be used as shown in the standard plan.” There was no sub-ballast at Woodbridge, again because of the nature of the traffic. “We have provided sub-ballast for a permanent structure, for the long pull, so to speak,” Hursh explained to Van Tine. “This track was going to be abandoned in six or nine months. It was not necessary.”
Van Tine would particularly be on the war path over how the cinder ballast was applied. The procedure called for three courses with tamping between each. He proclaimed that, “since the question of ballast seems to become so important, I would suggest that the men who actually laid it, not only Mr. McNally, but the men who were with him on the crew laying the ballast be brought here.”
“If your Honor please,” Schroder hastened to point out to Boswell, “I understand there are about 70 men in that gang, and if you want them all in here—”
I am interested only in the portion between the east end of the trestle and Legion Place,” Van Tine specified.
“If your Honor please, I will produce Mr. McNally, but I shall stop there,” asserted Schroeder. “If [Van Tine] wants anybody else, I am sorry, but he will have to subpoena them. I think it is ridiculous to bring in 50 or 60 people here.”
“Cannot you tell me who the men were that were engaged at that particular location so that I can subpoena them?”
“I do not think that is possible, because that gang was working all over that track, on both ends of the run-around, on different days, at different times.”
These demands were more than Senator Toolan could keep quiet over. “If your Honor please,” he began, “it seems to me, as a practical matter, that we do not want to get into that position at this late date, after the railroad has produced every witness that has been called...and produced them voluntarily. Now it is suggested that we bring in a crowd of laborers, for instance, to testify what they did, when the offer has been made to bring in the man who supervised these men in doing the work...It seems to be it is just asking a little too much. We all want to get rid of this thing sometime.”
Left in the middle was Boswell. “I should think he [McNally] ought to be able to give us the information,” he asserted. But Van Tine was not about to back off.
“Except that today, for the first time...in a hypothetical question, we are told about three courses, and so forth,” he countered. “Now it seems as if it is sort of late for the Pennsylvania Railroad to tell us about it...I believe that we are entitled to know—not only from Mr. McNally, but from the track foreman and anybody else that may be able to give us some information—exactly what was done there.”
It was all getting too much for Schroeder.
“Mr. McNally answered everything that was asked,” he snapped. “Do not start the suppression thing, because we have been waiting for six weeks to see some statements around here. We can make charges of suppression—”
“I am not talking about suppression,” Van Tine insisted. “The fact is that Mr. McNally was asked exactly what he had done, and he told us. If you look at that record you do not see anything in there that has to do with three courses. The Attorney General thought that he was telling him how he had built it.”
“If you think the Pennsylvania Railroad does not know how to lay 6 or 8 inches of cinders, we have certainly reached a pretty pass in this investigation,” Toolan interjected. “If your Honor please, I think this is getting ridiculous. That is exactly how I feel about it, when we have to argue here for this duration over whether or not the Pennsylvania Railroad, after all of its experience, knows how to lay a cinder bed under track, consisting of 6 or 8 or 10 inches.”
“I would like to have the assistants of Mr. McNally and two track foremen,” settled Van Tine.
When the PUC hearing reconvened the following day, Schroeder introduced, “the general foreman of the track gang who was in charge of the gang that was laying the track at the east end of the trestle.”
“Put him right on so that he can get back to work,” Van Tine replied.
Luigi Di Giorgio, 27 years with the PRR, worked his way up from laborer to assistant foreman to general foreman. He couldn’t recall an exact date when he was first on-site, but figured it had to have been five or six days prior to February 6, 1951. After all the fuss, he produced a concise account.
“Well, first we spread in some cinders,” Di Giorgio told Van Tine. “Then we laid the ties. Then we laid the rail. Then we spiked it up. After that we trucked some cinders from down the load truck, by motor truck to this point. Then we spread them over the track to give it the first lift. When we got the first lift, we truck some more cinders the following day. We fill the crib again. Then we bring up the bearing, the elevation. Then after that we bring some more sand to make finish, which we make another little raise to establish the elevation.” Each time cinder was added, it was tamped down by a man with the back of a shovel.
McNally confirmed Di Giorgio used between 6- and 10-inches of cinders. Van Tine questioned if “the shovel tamping of ballast by a man exerts more pressure per square inch than a locomotive running over it?”
“I know it will,” McNally assured him. “A tie of nine inches, eight foot six long, you have...918 square inches on the bottom surface of that tie. If you distribute an axle load of 60,000 pounds over that area, you have approximately 70 pounds per square inch exerted on the ballast, distributed from the tie to the ballast...A shovel used for tamping is somewhat less than ten inches in width...a 150-pound man leaning against that, with half of his weight would exert more pressure on the cinder than the 60,000 pound axle load of an engine.”
Testing the Track
After all was said and done, Van Tine wanted to know, did they at least test it with a train before opening it to commuter traffic? While some 30 to 40 work trains had been on the site, none traveled the whole length.
“So that until February 6th, no rolling equipment had crossed the trestle or traveled over that portion of the roadbed east of the trestle?” Parsons asked McNally.
“That is right.”
“May I ask you, sir,” Parsons suggested incredulously, “with this new construction, with the standard practice of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where there is new construction, is it the standard practice of the railroad to open a track for traffic without testing it?”
“Now...before letting human beings travel in a passenger train across...why wouldn’t it be better practice for the safety of the traveling public to have operated at twenty-five miles an hour over that cut-off with a loaded train, to determine the reaction of the train?”
“You would be throwing away years and years of experience, as far as railroad construction and design is concerned, to set up something like that,” McNally.
McNally suggested that by the same logic, every automobile ought to be rigorously tested under every conceivable set of circumstances before permitting the public to drive them. It just wasn’t practical—at some point, you go on faith that the people responsible for making the thing knew what they were doing.
The first full train was a passenger pulled by a GG-1 electric locomotive, followed by another around 2:00 p.m. pulled by a diesel, after which McNally inspected the track. He found minor compacting of the ballast on the approach to the trestle, but insisted that it was nothing more than was to be expected after the passage of the first trains. He had enough time before the next train for a crew to jack up the track and add another half-inch of cinder. While the work crew was busy, McNally checked a dozen or so other spots along the approaches, using a cross-level and his eye. He saw nothing else out of place.
It should not be forgotten the Pennsylvania Railroad was a business. Time and money spent on what, to the men who ran it, was unnecessary testing and redundancies was as good as squandered. To the State Attorney General’s Office and the Public Utilities Commissioners, charged with protecting the public well-being, no test or redundancy was too burdensome if it might save a life.
Somewhere between these paradigms was an elusive—perhaps, ultimately, unachievable—happy medium where men made money and the public was safe.
Rules are necessary. But how—and how far—to enforce them was at the heart of understanding why The Broker tragedy happened.
1 PUC. pp. 7-8.
2 PUC. p. 13.
3 PUC. pp. 61-3.
4 PUC. pp. 48-9.
5 PUC. p. 84.
6 PUC. p. 81.
7 PUC. p. 90.
8 PUC. pp. 100-107.
9 PUC. pp. 110, 113.
10 PUC. pp. 128; 130-131.
11 PUC. pp. 208; 221; 224; 227; 232.
12 PUC. pp. 421-422.
13 PUC. pp. 1287-1291.
14 PUC. p. 1292.
15 PUC. pp. 1293-1295.
16 PUC. pp. 1300-1303.
17 PUC. pp. 1306-1307.
18 PUC. pp. 1311-1312.
19 PUC. pp. 1315-1318.
20 PUC. pp. 1321-1322.
21 PUC. pp. 1466-1467.
22 PUC. pp. 1469-1503.
23 PUC. p. 1471.
24 PUC. p. 760.
25 PUC. p. 1244.
26 PUC. p. 1247.
27 PUC. p. 1246.
28 PUC. p. 1244.
29 PUC. pp. 1249-1250.
30 Anon. "Race Track Fight Heads to Court." The Trenton Evening Times. April 13, 1945. p. 21.
31 Anon. "Board Will Hear Racetrack Foes." The Trenton Evening Times. April 10, 1945. p. 3.
32 PUC. 1350-1364.
33 PUC. 1365-1381.
34 PUC. 1394-1403.
35 PUC. pp. 23-47.
36 PUC. pp. 1546-1547.
37 PUC. p. 1558.
38 PUC. pp. 434-435.
39 PUC. p. 452.
40 PUC. 454-455.
41 PUC. 1553-1554.
42 PUC. pp. 1557-1560.
43 PUC. pp. 589-592.
44 PUC. pp. 1539-1540.
45 PUC. pp. 305-310.
46 PUC. p. 1542.
47 PUC. pp. 2276-2287.
48 PUC. 2292-2295.
49 PUC. pp. 321-325.
50 PUC. pp. 331-337.