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Train Crashes (Part 1)

Train Crashes from Gen Z Perspective

Photo taken after the crash

One of the first things that really drew me to trains were the disasters. It may seem like a strange place to start a blog, but recently learned that Steven Spielberg got his start in filmmaking because of a train crash. And since Jurassic Park is one of my favorite films, I figured I could do it as a tribute to him. So here goes.

Thomas the Tank Engine: Accidents Will Happen

My introduction to accidents and crashes was watching Thomas the Tank Engine as a little kid. I’m talking VHS videos—the first few seasons when it was narrated by celebrities like miscician Ringo Starr, comedian George Carlin, actor Michael Angelis and actor Alec Baldwin. These were made before CGI arrived in 2009. Thomas and his friends often had minor accidents and derailments, like (here/S1, E7), (here/S1, E23), (here/S1, E24) and (here/ S1, E25). The original series even had a song called “Accidents Will Happen” written by Mike O’Donnel and Junion Cambell, one of the greatest songs ever written IMO. Check out these lyrics—words to live by:

Accidents happen now and again, sometimes just by chance

You gotta pick yourself up and dust yourself down

The rest of the song basically about how accidents occur because people get too cocky or just don’t pay attention and that you should take them as lessons so they don’t happen again. This is the first time I learned the moral that people who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, something I have done my best to live by.

My two favorite accidents on the Island of Sodor didn’t involve Thomas. The first was from “Rusty and the Boulder”—Episode 25, Season 5 (here). Like a pg version of Indiana Jones, a giant boulder from a newly opened mine runs wild on the tracks. It barely misses Rusty, Sckarloey, Rhenaes, and Percy before crashing into a train shed. No one was hurt, but Sir Topham Hatt closes the mine and has the boulder moved to a hilltop, where it watches over the island … or something like that. This is one of my favorite accidents because of how goofy it looks. The boulder almost seems to follow the trains as in one shot, it jumpscares Rusty by appearing behind him when it should have appeared in front of him. I also like how it ends with the boulder barely dodging Percy and rolling into engine house in an explosion that looked like something out of a Michael Bay film. Here are some scenes from that classic video:

My other favorite accident occurred in Season 5, Episode 3, titled “A Better View for Gordon” (here). In that episode, Gordon is a pompous, big blue engine who’s always complaining. In this episode, he whines that the new station should have a big window in the wall to provide him with a better view and to allow people to see and admire him. Unfortunately, the next time Gordon approaches the station, his brakes fail. He jumps the tracks, skids across the floor, and bursts through the wall. Sir Topham Hatt says that a train crash is no way to get a panoramic view.

For some reason, Gordon’s crash blew my pre-school brain because it happened inside a building. Before, I saw trains hit either an automobile or another train, so watching go through a building was a new experience for me. I don’t know why this made the accident so fascinating, but I’m not alone. The image of a train blasting through a station wall has resonated with others. For example, one of the most famous photographs of a train accident was taken on October 22, 1895, in Paris, France.  

This image has captured the public’s imagination for over a century. In fact, famous American director Martin Scorsese recreated the accident in his film, Hugo. In the film, the 12-year-old protagonist has a nightmare where he jumps onto the tracks at a Paris station to grab a heart-shaped key. A runaway train hits him before it jumps the tracks and crashes through a wall, landing on the street below (watch it here). For me, the movie kind of fizzled out after this, but I love to rewatch the crash scene.

Circus Crashes

I’m going to do a deeper dive into movies & videos of train accidents in the next blog, including my Top Ten list of train disasters in film, but in honor of how Speilberg got his start, my focus today is on circus crashes. There’s a website called Circuses And Sideshows where you can find a list of circus train wrecks the U.S., as well as some information about many of them. In fact, the site has a TON of information about circuses in general.

Most American kids don’t go to the circus anymore. Yeah, a few circuses are still around, like the Big Apple and Cirque de Soleil, Universoul, and Ringling Brothers, which returned in October 2023 after five years off. These shows mostly stay in place or travel by road, but back in the day, the golden age of circuses was a result of the unprecented growth in passenger train travel at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Circuses criss-crossed the U.S. in railroad cars that often looked as colorful as the shows themselves. Circus trains weren’t just transportation; they were rolling advertisements. Here’s a famous 1925 lithograph of the Greatest Show on Earth with its 100 cars.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Unfortunately, I never got to see a circus train before they stopped running altogether in 2017. Despite not being able to see them in real life, it is nice that I can still see them in films. However, a train is a train is a train. Which means any train can derail, and plenty of circus trains did. Let’s start with one of the most iconic scenes that started Steven Spielberg on his path to filmmaking immortality. Here’s a YouTube clip of the crash scene from the 1952 movie, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” about the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The plot had everything—Lions and Elephants! Romance and Jealousy! Robbers and Trains!—and climaxed at THE BIG TRAIN CRASH! By today’s standards, the disaster looks clunky and amateurish, but it was cutting edge in the 1950s and earned a bunch of awards. I was amazed to learn that the scene was done with a combination of practical effects and model trains, with the producer Cecil B. DeMille demanding that scene show “shattering steel and wood” along with panicked passengers and caged animals.

Fast forward to 2009, when Spielberg accepted the Cecil B. Demille Award for a lifetime achievement in film. Remember how I mention that Spielberg got started in film making because of a train crash? Well, at the award ceremony, he admitted that one of his “first and most vivid childhood memories” was watching the The Greatest Show on Earth with his dad. “My fate was probably sealed that day,” he added, which he later showed in his semi-autobiographic film, The Fabelmans (2022). In that film, the young Sammy Fabelman is so impressed with the movie crash that he starts recreating the scene with his expensive Lionel trains until his father orders him to stop. So his mother gives him a 8mm camera and tells him to film the train wreck once and rewatch it as a movie. Famous career launched.

Hammond Circus Train Wreck (1918). The crash in The Greatest Show on Earth maybe have been fiction, but circus trains were involved in plenty of real life wrecks. According to the Circuses and Sideshows website, there were 57 accidents between 1877 and 1994 that killed 93 people and probably even more animals. The most infamous circus train crash was the Hammond Circus Train Wreck of 1918 involving the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which was America’s third largest circus at the time. In fact, the company was large enough to need two trains with 28 cars each.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, both trains were travelling to Hammond, Indiana, when part of the second train pulled to a stop on a siding to fix a hotbox issue—overheated bearings, wheels, axles and brakes. However, the engineers left five cars on the main line and four of them were wooden sleeper cars. While the crew worked on the issue, a troop train with empty Pullman cars came speeding down the main line. The troop train’s engineer ignored all stop signals and and smashed into the back of the circus train.

Even worse than the wreck itself was the inferno that followed. Oil kerosene lamps ignited the wooden sleeper cars and probably caused a majority of the deaths. As the Smithsonian article notes, “Although the Gary and Hammond fire departments arrived as quickly as possible, the only source of water were nearby shallow marshes. A wrecking crane was also brought to the accident site to dig people out but couldn’t initially be used because the heat from the fire was so intense.”

The terror of that night must have been unimaginable as those who were trapped burned to death, and those who escaped were unable to save them. An investigation concluded that the engineer of the troop train had fallen asleep at the controls, and he was charged with manslaughter, but the charges were later dropped. Incredible, Amazingly, with the help of other circuses that provided performers and equipment, the Hagenbach-Wallace Circus performed three days after the accident, casting a different light for me on the phrase, “The show must go on.” After losing so many friends, relatives and colleagues, even doing a job you love must take incredible courage and strength.

Lakeland, Florida. The last circus train crash with fatalities occurred in 1994 near Lakeland, Florida. According to the Washington Post, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had 53 cars on its train, and 17 of those derailed trains derailed because of a broken wheel. Two people died—an elephant trainer and a clown. But looking at the picture of the wreck, it seems lucky there weren’t more deaths—25 children and all of the animals were uninjured.

The Washington Post reported, “the train had passed a defect detector shortly before it crossed an intersection where marks in the pavement indicated that one wheel was not on the track.” This reminds me of the 1998 Eschede train disaster in Germany, where a broken wheel hitting a switch was also the cause of the crash. Unfortunately, the outcome of that crash was much worse—101 people were killed and more than 100 were injured. The large number of fatalities was probably due to the higher speed of the German train, which was going around 125 mph at the time of the accident. This was the second deadliest railway disaster in German history.

Next time, I’ll write about how train crashes have been represented in media, including my top ten list of crash scenes.


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