Monday Mystery: The Wreck of the Sunset Limited

I've been reading about train disasters lately, mostly because the Northeast Regional recently plotzed itself in Philadelphia. I've been on that train, although not on that segment of track. Excessive speed is a new one on me; my experience has been more one of crap wifi service and grinding to a halt in the middle of rural Connecticut while the engineer gets on the PA and helpfully explains that they have no idea what's wrong with the train.

"Driver forgot to brake" is much less exciting than "sabotage", which is what happened to the Sunset Limited in 1995. News stories from outside Arizona tend to characterize the wreck as happening 'near Phoenix', but that's because outsiders think that Phoenix and the Grand Canyon are the only notable things in the entire state. They're not all that far wrong, but the 1995 derailment actually happened down near Yuma, which is in the lower left-hand corner, in the general direction of California:

They tipped it right off a bridge. That's not water under it, at least not in that photo; it's a flood channel, wet only in monsoon season, if then. The wave pattern is just what happens when the runoff from the annual rain storm (singular) deposits dust and silt in its wake. Site photos show solid ground below a load of Amtrak cars tipped over like a particularly petulant child had given them an almighty kick.

Photo swiped from MSNBC, wherever Google found it.
(I remember that livery from my mother's HO-gauge train set. They don't use it anymore, at least not out east. The Northeast Regional and Accela trains are done up in navy and silver. The last time I saw it in person was probably over a decade ago, when I lived in Flagstaff, where they still run passenger service through to LA and Chicago. Amtrak claims to stop in Phoenix, but they don't; they stop in Maricopa, which is kind of like stopping in Phoenix in the same way that stopping in Providence is kind of like making it all the way to Boston. The Sunset Limited service then stopped in Tuscon, Maricopa, and Yuma, all along the southern edge of the state.)

Unlike other things that the conspiracy wingnuts have got hold of, this one was very definitely sabotage. Not only did someone take chunks out of the rail, they were clever enough to bridge the missing bits with wires, so as not to interrupt the track circuit. Amtrak is not classy enough to have electrified the trains out there; rather, the electrical circuits are part of the automated signaling and track protection system. Each segment of the rails, called a 'block' in railroad parlance, has a current running through each rail. If the current makes it from end to end on each rail, that means the rail is unbroken, and if the current is bridged between the rails -- by, for example, a metal axle -- then the signaling system knows there's a train on that block of track. (That last is particularly important, as there's no human presence within eyeballing distance of most of the track. The block signaling system telling you whether there's still someone on your chunk of track is what prevents dispatch from clearing the next train through too soon, and smashing it right into the last one,) Running wires across the physically-missing chunks defeated the protection system, and the Sunset Limited, unaware that there was any problem, plowed right over the missing spikes, and went higgledy-piggledy off the track when the wheels kicked up.

This is a terrible mess when you do it to freight trains, but the Sunset Limited is passenger service. (The oldest named passenger train remaining in the US, in fact.) A hundred people were injured, and one Amtrak staffer died.

The Feds take an extraordinarily dim view of things like this. The accident report doesn't seem to be in the NTSB online archives; I'm not sure if that's because the incident took place prior to 1996 (the availability of reports before then is spotty) or because it didn't take very long for this to go from an accident investigation to a criminal one. The local FBI office wasted little time in taking over once several letters were found in the area, claiming to be from the "Sons of the Gestapo", and claiming that the derailment was in revenge for the Waco killings.

Unconfirmed connections were also drawn from the fact that a book had recently been published about a 1939 derailment that was accomplished through similar means. Most news sources don't mention which this was; paging through Wikipedia, I'm pretty sure it's the 1939 derailment of the City of San Francisco, which was toppled off a bridge in Nevada by a moved rail.

Neither the 1939 case nor the 1995 one have ever been solved. Last month, the FBI office in Phoenix announced that not only was the investigation still open and active, but that there is now a substantial reward for information leading to an arrest.