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Wreck on the Low Grade

January 1, 1957


It happened early New Years Day 1957 on the B&O low grade freight line (number 4 track) at a sharp curve in an isolated section of Berkeley County, West Virginia, killing three crewmen and injuring six others.

Much of the blame for the accident was upon two of the operators at Miller Tower near Cherry Run for their failure to protect a train moving against the current of traffic.

Number 4 track, at the time of the accident, was signaled for eastward moves only. A westward move could be made, but to do so proper protection was needed to assure that no eastward trains would enter that section of track.

Protection consisted of applying locking devices to opposing signals and switches at the exiting end of the track involved, the display of a red train order signal, and the issuance of a right-of-track train order from the dispatcher addressed to any trains moving in the direction (in this case eastward) that would conflict with the move being made.

According to the Interstate Commerce Commission report on the incident, the second-shift operator at Miller Tower did copy the order, but he failed to provide the required blocking protection, and he did not display the red train order signal. Moreover, he did not make a written transfer of the order to the third-shift operator, but the third-shift operator (who supposedly entered the office as the order was being transmitted) said he understood the order, and that he would attend to the red train order signal.

Meanwhile, the operator at the tower at West Cumbo near Hedgesville, who copied the same train order addressed to the westward train involved, and then getting a clearance form to accompany the order, routed the train onto number 4 track, and delivered its copies of the order... "Extra 6498 West has right over opposing trains on No 4 four track West Cumbo to Miller." (In those days, the track number was written both numerically and spelled out.)

The third-shift operator at Miller became distracted with other activities, and overlooked the situation involving the opposing train. An eastbound train was approaching, and he got the dispatcher's permission to route that train onto number 4 track. (For this, the dispatcher was to be held accountable as well; he, too, had overlooked the situation.)

Notwithstanding the absence of a red train order signal being displayed at Miller, the eastward train might have gotten at least some protection by the wayside signals had it not been for the location of the westward train at the moment in which the eastward train passed its last signal prior to the collision. In this instance, the last signal it passed informed the crew that there were no trains between there and the next signal it would encounter. But after the eastward train passed that signal, the westward train (which had no signals at all) entered that particular section of track.

Regrettably, the error was not discovered until after the eastward train had cleared onto number 4 track at Miller. With radios not yet available for communication to trains, there was no way to tell the crews to stop. A desperate effort was made to call employees living near the track, to ask them to run out and flag either or both of the trains, but the effort failed. Finally, a call was made to the local rescue squad to respond to the accident... by some accounts before it even happened.

The dispatcher and both of the operators involved were dismissed from the railroad. The dispatcher and the third-shift operator were later rehired. Both of the operators have since died. The dispatcher completed his career with the railroad and retired a number of years ago.

Interestingly, number 4 track was still signaled exclusively for eastward moves until just before Miller Tower closed in September 2000. Now, as part of a signal improvement project, it is signaled in both directions.



WRECK ON THE LOW GRADE - 'THE REST OF THE STORY' - (from January 2005 Bull Sheet)