Home New York City Transit An uptown A train heads up the downtown tracks

An uptown A train heads up the downtown tracks

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s been a long time since New York City’s last major collision involving two subway cars and multiple injuries. Despite a few recent high-profile derailments, the 1995 Williamsburg bridge incident in which a motorman on the J trail likely fell asleep and rear-ended a stopped M train in front of him was the most recent deadly crash. The motorman was killed, and scores of passengers were injured. Earlier this month along the 8th Avenue line, Transit avoided the potential for a far worse accident.

The story, as Pete Donohue reported it yesterday, is dramatic and scary. Essentially, an A train operator missed a switch and started heading uptown on the downtown express tracks north of Canal St. and south of West 4th. The failures mounted and only quick thinking down the line and a clear view down the tracks averted disaster. Donohue writes:

A subway operator on the A line recently piloted an express train uptown — on a downtown track — for several minutes before coming to a stop, according to sources. A dispatcher tried to contact the crew by radio after realizing the train had pulled out of the Canal St. hub on the wrong track, and was moving against the regular flow of traffic. But the crew later told authorities they never heard the emergency radio broadcasts, the source said.

The operator only halted the A train after she already had passed through the Spring St. station and spotted the headlights of a southbound express idling ahead of her at the next station, W. 4th St., the source said…

Luckily, the screwup happened on a stretch that, for the most part, is a straight track with good visibility, a veteran motorman said. If the train operator had been going around sharp curves, and wasn’t hearing or receiving dispatchers calling out on the radio, this could have ended with a serious crash, the knowledgeable old-timer said. “She could have had a head-on collision,” he said. “That’s the only way to say it. There’s no nicer way to put it.”

…The A train originally was traveling south when signal problems started causing extensive delays in the system. Dispatchers began rerouting service, and the A train operator was told to was told go back uptown from Canal, sources said. The proper series of steps would have been to empty the train of passengers, pull into a spur track just south of Canal, and then maneuver through a switch to the northbound express track, authorities said. Instead, operator simply went north on the same southbound track, apparently thinking she would soon encounter the crossover switch she needed by going in that direction.

All well’s that ends well. The A train was traveling only slowly northbound and was able to stop well before reaching any oncoming train, and dispatchers were able to halt southbound service as the problem was sorted out. But as the B Division trains — the lettered lines — doesn’t enjoy the same tracking system as the A Division, it’s easy to see how this could have been much, much worse.

It isn’t immediately clear how the TO missed the switch. There’s already an extensive thread on Subchat debating just that question, and many have questioned why the train operator was not more familiar with the set of switches or the fact that she had ended up on the wrong track. Additionally, the failure of the emergency radio broadcasts is a big concern as well. For now, the TO has been assigned to desk duty, and the MTA is investigating. If anything, this incident underscores the need for modern signal and communications system, something the MTA has wanted, but hasn’t been to afford, for years.

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Berk32 August 26, 2014 - 1:13 am

Scary how she managed to ignore every red signal and just go uptown.

Hank August 26, 2014 - 2:20 pm

Because they were heading north on a normally southbound track, no signals would have been encountered until they came upon the interlocking where they expected to cross over to the northbound track.

Berk32 August 26, 2014 - 5:40 pm

There are definitely signals going both directions.

Edward August 26, 2014 - 6:22 pm

The train operator could not have ignored a red signal because if she did, the signal would have put the train into emergency.

Asher August 26, 2014 - 2:02 am

I am sure that the TWU will back up this employee 100% at any disciplinary hearings, and then demand extra pay to cover “don’t go north on southbound tracks” training.

Quirk August 26, 2014 - 5:22 am

Yep. These unions need to go.

Chet August 26, 2014 - 10:32 am

The union doesn’t need to go- the lunatic work rules and the entire mentality of management always being wrong and to blame needs to go.

They need a totally different style of leadership.

BenW August 26, 2014 - 11:57 am

Seriously? If your reaction to “near-miss on a large-fatality accident” is “oh hey, I can take a swipe at the union!”, the problem might not be with the union.

Quirk August 26, 2014 - 1:45 pm

Honestly have you seen Presidents or Chairman’s of most unions. Can you honestly say they look any better than say a homeless person or that hoodlum living near the projects?

Ofc, hoodlums protecting other hoodlums shouldn’t be surprising.

Quirk August 26, 2014 - 1:48 pm

Correct: Do yo honestly look or SOUND better than a homeless person or….”

Roxie August 27, 2014 - 10:09 am

Racism and classism: always a winning combo!

Tower18 August 26, 2014 - 10:24 am

This isn’t a case of “missing a switch” as there’s no switch in the direction the train traveled. The train was always a downtown train, which pulled into Canal on the downtown express track. Due to problems ahead, the train was to be turned back uptown. Apparently the train operator simply reversed direction and went back uptown on the same downtown express track (can a train go “in reverse” or does this mean the operator switched ends?).

There’s two possible things I can think of for a downtown train changing direction at Canal. 1) Switch to local track and head to WTC, or 2) go out of service and proceed onto pocket track south of Canal and reverse.

I’m not sure how it was possible for a train to actually reverse on the same track, with passengers, and actually make it 1.5 stations down the line before noticing something was wrong. It’s not like the interlockings at Canal are a secret to operators…it’s a main feature of the 8th Ave Line.

Tower18 August 26, 2014 - 10:29 am

Also regarding signals and stops, yes she would have disregarded a bunch of red signals (which she ostensibly thought she was cleared to do, I guess), but as far as I recall, the trips/stops will not stop a train going the wrong direction, as they’re one-directional, and a train going the wrong way will simply knock them down, rather than activating the stopping mechanism.

Simon August 26, 2014 - 11:15 am

Thanks, I was wondering why the brakes didn’t trip. That seems like a major design flaw.

The TO definitely would have had to switch ends at Canal, but should have done that after pulling into the pocket south of Canal. So many things went wrong here.

Larry Littlefield August 26, 2014 - 11:25 am

Does the 8th Avenue express have bi-directional signaling? I don’t think so. It has the original signal system from the late 1920s, does it not?

So there would have been no red lights for the train on the wrong track. There would be no lights at all. But the downtown train, the one at W 4th, should have had a red and been halted if the uptown train got close.

BTW, the 6th Avenue line has switches north of the station. The 8th Avenue line does not. Perhaps the TO had previously worked on the 6th Avenue line.


John-2 August 26, 2014 - 11:45 am

Design-wise, the IND Canal Street station’s track layout at both ends is oddball enough compared to the rest of the system — with the switches between the uptown local/express tracks basically being across from the downtown platform — that the T/O may have assumed she’d be seeing the switches between the express tracks somewhere just north of there. Which probably means she should have watched that old episode of “The Odd Couple” where Felix offers up the lesson on what happens when you ‘assume’. And you’d think by the time the T/O came wrong-raling through Spring Street, she might have suspected something was amiss that they would have her going so far back uptown on the wrong track before switching over.

Alex August 26, 2014 - 12:55 pm

Lots cleared up in this thread that I was curious about, including the trip stop and wrong-way signalling. Thanks for that. I completely agree with John-2 on Spring Street. I’m just a train geek and I know when something’s off right away. You’d think a TO would stop when she didn’t switch over by Spring and contact the dispatch. I can’t see any circumstance where not exercising caution there can be justified.

Hank August 26, 2014 - 2:28 pm

The train at W4 had a red signal, as it should have with the track ahead of it occupied. The operator wrong-railing was proceeding with caution ‘prepared to stop within sight distance’ of another train, as she had no signals to follow.

A big deal about a small error, nothing more, as all the correct procedures were followed after the initial error.

Larry Littlefield August 26, 2014 - 3:18 pm

That’s what I would have expected. News coverage implies the two trains were running down the track at full speed.

Michael August 26, 2014 - 1:04 pm

As just a regular rider on the subways, who has looked out of the “rail-fan window” for years (when they existed) – there are almost no excuses for this event.

1) Since train operators are supposed to be watching the tracks and signals – this operator should have known (simply due to repeated trips over the same stretch of tracks) that there no switched between the downtown local or express tracks, or between the express tracks BEFORE arriving at the Canal Street downtown platforms. It is plainly EASY to see when snd WHERE a Brooklyn-bound C (or CC train) crosses over (switches) on to the express track IN FRONT of the downtown A-train at the platform for the journey to Brooklyn, a train movement that occurs every single day!

2) In addition, there are signal lights BEFORE the approach of switch points that train operators have to be aware of. Train operators have to be aware of the signal lights, and to know what kinds of signal lights are in what places. In reversing the train, the train operator would have had to have checked to make sure that the signal light allowed the train to proceed.

3) Causal observation of the IND system as built shows that there are several “dis-jointed stations” by that I mean the placement of the track switches between the local and express tracks occurs at a station where those trains are resting at a platform, before the train could cross over a track switch – see Queens Plaza, Roosevelt Avenue, Utica Avenue tracks as examples. There are some exceptions, but then that comes under the heading of KNOWING YOUR RAILROAD – which is something that train operators are supposed to know.

4) This train operator screwed up royally, the only good thing was that nobody was hurt. If this action had taken place where the tracks had a blind curve with a moving downtown express train on the same track – there would be demands for an investigation! There would also be law-suits for the deaths! This is a serious safety violation, not some innocent mistake.

5) This train operator did not KNOW the railroad!

Just my thoughts.

Michael August 26, 2014 - 9:06 pm

The Canal Street station (ACE) is no more an “odd-ball station” than the Queens Plaza station of the E, M, and R trains. Trains traveling the “express tracks”, the Queens-bound E and M trains do not encounter any switches between the local and express tracks until those trains have reached the platform, and then once past that switch is the siding track for a train to reverse direction. This operation was done for a decade or more with the G-train that ended its route at Queens Plaza. The A-train in question should have simply used that siding track. This is simply the part about “knowing your railroad”.

John-2 August 26, 2014 - 10:07 pm

But Canal’s the only station I can think of where you have two active switches within the station box — The uptown switch which is across from the north end of the downtown platform and the downtown switch, across from the south end of the uptown platform. All switching at QP is done in the tunnens outside of the station box (and as originally designed, the east end of Queens Plaza was similar in design to the pocket track/crossover layout of the IRT’s Seventh Avenue line south of Times Square).

That doesn’t excuse the error on the part of the T/O, just that being in the cab at the rear of the downtown A train and seeing the uptown local/express crossover switches outside her cab window, she may have assumed (because she didn’t know the railroad and certainly wasn’t used to turning a train at Canal), that those switches would be followed by the express crossover switches a little further up the track.

Michael August 27, 2014 - 4:30 am

I understand your point about the “station box”.

I was trying to make the point that the Canal Street station is not an “odd-ball” situation, but rather a setup that is familiar on the IND system. Several stations have the same general arrangement of track switch layouts. I agree that it is a short list of stations like Canal Street or Chambers Street/WTC – were one can watch from the platforms to see trains switch tracks. (There are several nice places to watch the trains.)

The other point that I hope was not lost – was the idea that this operator traveled the whole route from 14th Street to Canal Street on the downtown express track. There are NO switches that involve the express track through that whole pathway until the downtown express train rests at the platform at Canal Street.

So one can not reverse over the same track thinking or hoping that there is a switch to guide the train to the uptown express track. The operator had driven over the entire pathway and had to notice that the train did not pass over any switches that affect the express tracks! The operator was not paying attention!


Bolwerk August 26, 2014 - 11:01 am

Cue the “Real New Yorkers” to come out of the woodwork and crack jokes about why we shouldn’t let women drive [trains].

Rob August 26, 2014 - 4:37 pm

“It isn’t immediately clear how the TO missed the switch” because it’s a nonsensical statement. The train [and the operator] follow the route [and switch] that is set for it. It’s not like driving a car and forgetting to make a turn.

Only exception is that at a junction, the operator may get to press a button to select a route, which I don’t think was the case here.


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