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How vulnerable are elevated subway trains to derailment?

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You might be one of many New York commuters who idly worry about MTA trains derailing—but do you need to be?

Max Touhey

New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, writer Ashley Fetters will be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.

Every morning when the F train rounds the curve between the Fourth Ave and Smith-Ninth St stops in Brooklyn, on the narrow elevated tracks above Gowanus, one 30-year-old passenger named Vanessa tenses up. Irrational as it may be, she says, “every time, I’m like, could we derail off this thing? And will I be pierced through by a piece of lingering scrap metal in the junkyard below?”

To live in New York City in recent years is to live with train derailments; last year’s “summer of hell,” for example, in which a quarter of all train service to Penn Station was shut down for badly needed repairs, was partially the result of a bad spate of derailments.

Once in a while, these incidents are serious; more often they’re the kind that simply delay your morning commute. Regardless, it’s become oddly routine to hear about a train derailment in one of the boroughs or a derailment on a New Jersey Transit, LIRR, or Metro-North line.

And if, like Vanessa, you’re a daydreaming commuter who’s gotten used to thinking about derailments, and you’ve seen a few scary disaster scenes in movies—Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Speed, even Snowpiercer come to mind—you too might be one of the many New Yorkers who idly worry on their commutes about MTA trains flying off the elevated tracks.

Of course, the fact that it’s actually happened doesn’t help. In 1905, 13 people died and 48 were seriously injured when a speeding IRT Ninth Avenue train was mistakenly switched onto a curve on an elevated track at 53rd Street in Manhattan. In 1923, a two-car train fell off an elevated track near the busy intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn, killing eight people.

And in 1998, four out-of-service subway cars were thrown off of a 25-foot elevated track in the Bronx when a conductor passed out; a 2 and a 4 train collided near a train yard. Only the two drivers were injured, but one train tumbled onto the roof of an auto body garage and onto a tractor trailer, which started an electrical fire. The fire chief at the scene that night told The New York Times that in 36 years with the fire department, he’d “never seen anything like it.” (Derailment horror stories from other metropolitan areas are no comfort, either.)

According to the MTA, the agency has instituted a number of safety features throughout the years to prevent these incidents from occurring, including, according to a spokesperson, “continual training and refresher courses for personnel; regular evaluations, fitness-for-duty checks and speed checks; random drug and alcohol tests; emergency protection rails that help prevent derailments; a signal system that prevents collisions; and the ongoing inspection and maintenance of the track, signals, and cars.”

So what are the chances, realistically, of a train derailing and falling off the elevated tracks, today? Pretty slim, once you actually think through it. In the early 20th century, much of New York’s metro train system was on elevated tracks, but by the 1950s, those had fallen out of use as the faster and more durable underground system developed.

Today, about one-third of the city’s subway stops are on elevated tracks. And of those, only some are on the kind of narrow roller-coaster tracks that tend to give passengers the heebie-jeebies (for example, a sizable portion of the 7 train route through Jackson Heights, Queens; certain stretches of the 4 train route through the Bronx; and parts of the five-mile elevated J/M/Z route through Williamsburg, among others).

Plus, as George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota and the author of Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters explains, derailments are much less likely to happen on metro systems—i.e. the subway—than on ground-level train systems (like Amtrak or Metro-North), which have the added risk of collision with cars and other vehicles.

“There’s a short list of human errors that cause derailments,” Bibel says. A metro train can still derail if it rounds a curve too fast, Bibel says, or if it gets switched to the wrong track. A signal malfunction might also cause a derailment, he says, “but signals are usually automated on a metro system.” (As the MTA’s subway chief Wynton Habersham pointed out in 2017, however, the alarmingly old infrastructure on which the MTA still runs almost caused a “universal failure of the signal system” in 2011.)

But the two factors that ultimately make metro trains less likely to derail are that they’re lighter and their tracks aren’t laid in the outdoor ground. “Big, heavy freight trains pound the ground a lot more, and the soil isn’t that stable [so the tracks might break or get displaced]. Things happen to soil, too. Things can grow in it, it can get wet,” he says. “If a light metro system is built on steel and/or concrete elevated tracks, that’s fundamentally more stable than a big heavy train moving on soil that can have things happen to it.”

This may be welcome news for people like Vanessa, who’ve developed their infrastructure-adjacent anxieties largely because of New York’s notoriously geriatric transit systems. “New York loves to remind you how old it is, and how long ago a bunch of guys built it,” she jokes. “It’s like when you ride the Ferris wheel at the traveling amusement park and you hope the locals who put it together did it the right way.”

Got a weird New York anxiety that you want explored? E-mail, and we may include it in a future column.