Rail history buffs--train wreck 101

For the purposes of fiction I am creating a train wreck, set in the year 1929. The way I’m creating it is to have someone throw a switch halfway, so that instead of being directed on to one track or another, the train derails. It is not going that fast but causes lots of damage nonetheless.

My questions:

(1) I know that there is a key to switchboxes, but I am assuming that rail employes in 1929 were as lazy as they are today and would leave the key in. Is this assumption realistic?

(2) Would there be any way to go back later and prove that the switch was tampered with? No CSI in those days . . .

(3) Would someone be at the switch? Say, to signal?

(4) Where would the switch be in relation to the place where the track splits? I would like to have the switch itself buried for a couple of days by train wreckage, if that’s feasible.

I have a moderately gung-ho railroad buff who’s agreed to read the draft of this, but he didn’t know the answers and anyway I don’t want to start down the wrong track and derail the plot right off the bat.

I can’t provide any links right now, but I’ll try and explain as best I can and will post links later if possible.

Firstly, determine whether the switch is operated manually or remotely in your scenario. In the referenced time frame, remote operations would be used mostly in large yards or busy junctions; isolated switches in remote locations would be almost always be manually operated.

For a remote operation, and if by ‘switch box’ you mean what in US usage is generally known as a signal tower, the switch (or ‘turnout’) is operated via a large ‘armstrong’ lever in the tower, connected to a rod or wire linkage system. The fact that the switch would have been tampered with would be detected by the position of the lever, as the lever would probably be frozen in position after the derailment damaged the switch mechanism. Also, in the late '20s, most such signal towers would have been occupied 24/7, so the towerman on duty would have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

If manually-operated, the switch mechanism is directly alongside the moveable rails (‘points’) and is operated by turning a ground or stand-mounted lever through 180 degrees. Switches in areas where they might be tampered with usually would be locked in safe position via a specially-keyed padlock (only railroad operating employees would be issued with keys). Perhpas the culprit is an ex-railroader with a key, or perhaps they simply broke the padlock off.

One last possibility is running a locomotive through a closed switch,which ends up bending the linkage and leaving the points open to approaching traffic. If manually operated, in both such cases cars could pile up at the switch to the point where it might take several hours, maybe a day at the outside, before the switch position could be determined. If remotely operated, it would be hard to hide evidence of the tampering, IMO.

Hope this helps.

Er, just so we’re clear, I’ll answer some specific questions posed by the OP:

The key only operates the padlock holding the switch lever in position. The key would not be likely to be left in the lock by another employee as they are issued only to specific persons and a missing key would have to be explained to the employee’s supervisor.

Unless the track structure were somehow completely destroyed, there would be several clues, including position of the switch lever, gouges in the wooden crossties from the wheels showing the point of the derailment, and furrows plowed in the ballast indicating same.

Switches are normally left lined for the prevailing traffic, with an operator only present when the switch must be turned. The operator could be the brakeman or conductor of the passing train, or a switchman assigned permantly to the location. In both cases they would be signalling the engineman to stop, and then proceed once the switch had been lined. Remotely-operated switches usually have remote signalling as well and no one would be at the switch.

One more imortant thing: Manually-operated switches usually bear metal flags or lanterns displaying the switch position. The engineman would have to be distracted, his view of this would have to be obscured by fog or heavy rain, or his speed would have to be fairly high, for him not to notice an incorrectly-set switch in time to stop.

Very helpful–thanks!

There is another way of doing it. There are times when it is desirable to have things set so that a train actually will be deliberately derailed. An example of this would be a siding running up a slight grade. There is a string of boxcars parked on the siding overnight, and if they should start rolling back down the grade, they would foul the main line, causing a possible major accident with an express train. Better to derail the boxcars at 5mph out of harm’s way. Now, usually there is a special piece of track called a catchpoint (US: derailer) which performs this task. Sometimes though, a similar thing is done on the main lines with regular points (turnouts, switches, etc). If the signals on both the through and diverging road are at danger (ie both tracks are already occupied by another train), then of course a train approaching has nowhere to go, and must stop and wait before the points. Just in case it doesn’t, as an added safety measure the signalmen sometimes use what is known here as “split points”. To set a switch to “split points” means to deliberately move the blades halfway and leave them there. This would cause the derailment of any approaching train, again on the assumption that a derailment is relatively better than a collision. This might be a possible scenario for you.

There are also historical cases where derailments have occured due to the points being thrown whilst a train is travelling over them. There was a (more recent than the 1920s) nasty one in the NY subway due to this, as I recall.

For historical rail disasters and their causes, going right back to the pioneering days, the Danger Ahead! site is worth a look. I can also ask the lads over at my other online haunt, Railpage Australia. There ain’t much they don’t know.

Switches normally have a visual indicator which allows an approaching engineer to determine the state of the switch. Your villian would need to tamper that. I think it is called a semiphore.

The key would never be left in the lock. On a given railroad, however, all the locks would likely be keyed the same.

Dad was a signalman, he had a ring of around a dozen keys that between them allowed access to about anything on the line. One set of these was kept at home, as it was not unheard of for the phone to ring at 2AM with a trouble call. A burgler could have ended up with them if they had broken into our house…or my delinquent brother could have made copies…lots of ways to make your plot work without invoking lazy ore careless RR workers.

Growing up, a couple of my friends were big into model railroads. Dad was able to set up a tour of a switching yard. You might make some enquirys. Most people are happy to show off how they earn thier living, and it’s always nice when an author “gets it right”.

Just make sure that when people are conducting their initial survey of the wreakage, someone has to say, [URL=http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=320884"oh, shit." :smiley:



Cecil relates a story of an accidental split point on a moving train in a Classic Column

The villain probably wouldn’t need to bother with this, as the signal’s aspect would only tell the driver which road he is to be given. In fact, if the story wants the train derailed at a fairly low speed, it might be good to have the signalling operational - a diverging train would slow down before the switch.

[full on geek mode]

OK, I found what I was looking for. Here’s a site with plenty of information (maybe too much for your purpose) on railroad engineering, including signals and switching. Mostly British practice, but US is covered as well and there are links to further reading should it be necessary.

[/full on geek mode]