Thursday, January 2, 2014

Major Passenger Train Wreck, Montgomery, IL, September 27, 1964

Introduction to the Wreck

This wreck involved trains of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific RR and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy RR.  It happened on the CB&Q at their Montgomery Tower in Montgomery, IL.  Montgomery Tower was the first interlocking plant west of Aurora, IL on the CB&Q double-track mainline to Galesburg, IL.  The  CB&Q's single-track Streater Branch headed off to the southwest and crossed the CRI&P at Ottawa, IL about 40 miles down the branch.  The pictures in this blog were taken the morning after the wreck, September 28, 1964.   The Rock Island was repairing its Des Plaines River Bridge in Joliet on its mainline and was detouring trains to Chicago up the CB&Q branch and trains to the west down it.

An interlocking plant is a location where trains may switch tracks, enter a train yard, or diverge to a different line as at Montgomery.  Montgomery was operated by a CB&Q employees called a levermen.  An interlocking plant is a large mechanical device that will not allow the tracks to be routed so a collision between trains occurs.  But it did at Montgomery.  Before the investigation, everybody who understood the interlocking concept said the wreck was impossible.

As the diagram shows three trains, all passenger, were at Montgomery at the time of the wreck.  An eastbound Rock Island waiting at a home signal (a signal on the signal bridge to allow a train to enter the interlocking plant) to come off the branch (upper right on the diagram).  It was CRI&P Extra 656 the combined Golden State and the Rocky Mountain Rocket.  The second was a Rock Island westbound on Track 1, the normally westbound track (both tracks were signaled in both directions), waiting at a home signal to go down the branch (lower left on the diagram).  The third was CB&Q #3, the combined Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr and American Royal Zephyr, westbound at 59 mph on the normally eastbound track.  Due to an error in upgrading the plant to electric-powered turnouts compromised the integrity of the plant and turnout #14 was improperly set for the branch and the Zephyr veered off into the waiting Rock Island train. Indications were that the operator had no indication of this error.   Track turnout #14 was set for the branch and the Zephyr veered off into the waiting Rock Island train. The wreck took place at 10:49 p.m. on the 27th.   

The known diesel numbers are shown on the chalk diagram drawing I drew right after the wreck.  Some computer additions have been made to the diagram.  On the diagram the interlocking plant is between signal bridges drawn like an uppercase letter I across the tracks.  The home signals are on those bridges.  The importance of the track that curves behind the tower labeled “to SHEEPYARDS” will become apparent.

Three CB&Q employees (two in the lead CB&Q engine) and one in the RI lead engine were killed. 200 hundred passengers and other employees claimed injuries but amazingly only five remained in a hospital more than one day. ) I was the night operator leverman at the tower two weeks previously. The operator that night collapsed of a nervous breakdown soon after the wreck. Some of the details in this album are from the October 1965 TRAINS Magazine article titled The Accident That Couldn't Happen by Mike Woodruff. The article goes into some detail on how interlocking plants work and what went wrong that horrid night.

This diagram shows the situation as I found it on the morning of the 28th.   The second CRI&P train had been removed (towed back to at least Aurora) and the first CB&Q diesel though shown was mostly gone. Two steam wrecking cranes with their trains are present.  The 27 pictures in this blog are numbered and the number and direction of each picture is shown on this diagram.  The Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr had three units, four stored mail cars (J), two baggage cars (B), three coaches (C) two Pullmans (S), and a heavyweight diner (D).  The headend cars (mail and baggage) accordioned, no doubt absorbing much of the impact and protecting the passenger cars somewhat.  The lead CB&Q diesel jackknifed and the first Rock Island diesel took to the air.

Pictures of the Wreck

Picture 01:  The steam crane to the east of the wreck rerailing the last Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr car, a coach.  This first one is easy.
Picture 02:  CB&Q Heavyweight Diner and Pullman "Silver Craig" originally purchased for the California Zephyr as it says on the Letter Board.
Picture 03:  Mustard and Ketchup On Your Hot Dog?  The car to the left is Denver Rio Grange &  Western Diner "Silver Gorge" the other is CB&Q Pullman "Silver Crag". Both are California Zephyr cars.
Picture 04: Zepher Cars
Picture 05: The accordianed Zephyr headend cars.

Picture 06: Seven of the nine diesel units involved.

Picture 07:  This unit was repaired and became Burlington Northern 9987 and pulled/pushed commuter trains in and out of Chicago.

Picture 08:  E7A 9922B was subsequently scrapped. She was 19 and obviously not worth the repair expense. E9A 9987A at the right however was returned to service.
Picture 09
Picture 10:  I can find no information if Rock Island 651 was rebuilt.
Picture 11:  This diesel was later used in suburban service.
Picture 12:  Too closely spaced.
Picture 13 : Rail laying over.
Picture 14:  This looks like the cab to the first Rock Island unit.
Picture 15:  The first train through using the "Sheep Yards" track down and through the yard and back up to the Aurora Depot.
Picture 16
Picture 17:  First train through using the sheep yard lead track. Pieces on the ground are parts of the lead Zephyr diesel unit.
Picture 18:  One of the first trains through using the Sheep Yard lead track. Parts on the ground are from the lead Zephyr diesel.
Picture 19:  Cab of Zephyr lead diesel.
Picture 20: Zephyr headend cars.
Picture 21:  First train through on Sheep Yard lead track and Zephyr baggage car.
Picture 22:  Last CB&Q baggage car and first two coaches.
Picture 23:  Second CB&Q coach and two Pullmans.
Picture 24:  Looking west from Montgomery Tower (screen on window). One crane and its cars are to the left. Sheep Yard lead track is center with rods from tower to its left.
Picture 25:  Looking west from tower (screen on window). One crane and its cars are to the left. One of the first trains is on the Sheep Yard lead track.
Picture 26: First train through on Sheep Yard lead track behind the tower.

Picture 27: First train through on Sheep Yard lead track behind the tower.

In Closing ...

Unlucky 656.  This was the third wreck for Rock Island diesel unit 656.  It was rebuilt and upgraded the first two times, but not this time.  What engineer would want to run her?

CB&Q Montgomery Tower 15 days before the wreck. These were called strong-arm plants and sometimes you had to use a leg too as demonstrated in this self portrait.  If school had not begun, I may have been the leverman that awful night!

Montgomery interlocking today.  The tower is long gone and the interlocking is operated by a remote dispatcher.


  1. RI 651 listed as "traded in to EMD 2-65 after wreck 9-64," according to Louis A. Marre's "Rock Island Diesel Locomotives."

  2. The October 1965 TRAINS magazine article was actually written by Robert B. Shaw. I made a reference to it on another site, and the article was mistakenly attributed to me.

    Mike Woodruff

  3. Do you know when the tower in Montgomery was removed from service? I remember the story in TRAINS. I would've been 13 at the time.

    1. I assume it happened not long after the wreck and the changeover to CTC was what allowed the wreck. CTC is centralized traffic control meaning one dispatcher runs the whole railroad (signals, switches, etc.) for many miles.

  4. Hi Marty
    Fantastic story. I found a reference to this accident while doing some genealogy research on my wife's grandfather, who was an engineer on the CB&Q.
    I was hoping you could help me find a copy of the ICC Accident Report about this accident. All of the links that I found on the net are "not found".
    Again, great work.
    Thank you
    Greg Heseltine

    1. I would assume the Library of Congress has a copy and they are searchable on-line. Also a university with a strong transportation program like MIT, Northwestern, U of Illinois, or UCLA would have a copy in their library.

      Sorry, I know that's not much help.

    2. That's OK.
      Thx for taking the time to reply.

  5. Hi Marty
    I tried this last night, but I'm not sure I did it right.
    I came across this site while doing some genealogy research on my wife's grandfather, who was a CB&Q engineer in Illinois.
    I am hoping to find a copy of the ICC Accident Report. All of the Google links that I could find don't appear to be active.
    Is there any website, person or group that may be able to help me? (a .pdf, .doc etc... would work)

    Thanks in advance

  6. The Rock Island fireman survived due to alarm bell sounding about the time the Q train first came into view. He found the steam generator on the 750 had shut down. He had refilled the tubes and just turned the switch from refill to start position when the wreck occurred. He woke up in hospital a day or two later and thought the boiler had blown up. This information was related to me by his brother who was also in engine service on RI.

    When the ICC accident report was released I was 3rd hours operator/leverman/clerk at Thornton Jct, Il on GTW. Every leverman had to read and sign that they understood the cause of the accident.

  7. Long ago, I know I had a copy of the ICC accident report on the Montgomery wreck. I'd be happy to share it, but I have no idea where it is hiding in my house. :-(

    I used that article to write an analysis of the wreck in a newsletter that I put out about interlocking towers some 25 years ago. I know I have a copy of the article, and will share if there's interest.

    1. i can't find the ICC Report online at DOT.

    2. I know – it's maddeningly missing from what is otherwise a pretty complete collection on the DOT site. If all else fails, the library here has a complete set of ICC accident reports.