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A Bad Night At Dongola

June 24, 2009

In today’s Canadian National rulebook, it is rule 518: Movement At Restricted Speed. It reads as follows:

When a train is required to move at restricted speed, it must proceed prepared to stop within one-half the range of vision short of:
* Train
* Engine
* Railroad Car
* Roadway workers or equipment fouling the track
* Stop Signal, or
* Derail or switch lined improperly

The crew must keep a lookout for broken rail and not exceed 20 MPH.

Comply with these requirements until the leading wheels reach a point where movement at restricted speed is no longer required or have reached the end of signaled territory.

This rule, or some variation of it, has been in railroad rulebooks since time immemorial. The rule number and exact wording may have changed over the years, but the principal is the same: go slow enough to be able to stop shy of hitting something.

In the same rulebook are rules 819 (approach) and 815 (restricted proceed). An approach, or yellow signal, tells a crew to proceed prepared to stop at the next signal. A restricted proceed is a red signal with a number plate on the signal, which allows a train to proceed at restricted speed. On passing a restricted proceed, a train is governed by rule 518. The rules were mostly the same in the Illinois Central rulebook of 1970, though restricted speed at that time allowed a maximum speed of only 10 MPH.

Southbound I.C. piggyback train #51 pulled out of IMX piggyback terminal in Chicago at 6:20 the evening of Saturday, September 12, 1970, with GP40 #3013 in the lead. The train made an additional pickup at Markham Yard, where it departed with 42 cars consisting of 38 loads and 4 empties. The train changed crews at Champaign and arrived at Centralia at 1:25am the 13th.

At Centralia, there was another crew change. While the new crew took over, car inspectors went to work giving the train its 500 mile brake inspection. When engineer H.W. Dunker kicked off the brakes and notched out the throttle departing B Yard at 1:40am, the train was two hours and 35 minutes behind schedule.

Five minutes later, extra 8177 south pulled out of North Yard in Carbondale. The train was a local consisting of two diesels, twenty-six cars and a caboose. Before leaving Carbondale, the local’s crew received a train lineup from the dispatcher showing #51 due by Carbondale at 2:00.

The local stopped at Anna to set out a car, and then continued on to Dongola where it had switching work to do. On arrival at Dongola, conductor L.E. Rees called the dispatcher to enquire on #51’s location. The dispatcher told Rees that #51 had passed Carbondale at 2:29, so he figured he should be able to have his switching finished and his train in the siding between the main tracks before the piggyback train arrived. Rees’s 20 year old son was riding along with his father this night, and stayed in the caboose as the crew set about their switching work.

In the meantime, #51 was making up time. The crew was taking considerable liberties with the speed limit; not an uncommon practice at the time. With a 3,240 ton train and three three-thousand horsepower GP40’s doing the work up front, the crew was able to make time in the hill country south of Carbondale. It must have been quite a ride that night, as the train was making considerably better time than Amtrak’s City of New Orleans does today.

North of Dongola, #51 passed an approach signal at milepost 335.9. Engineer Dunker started slowing the train, making a fifteen pound brake reduction. He and brakeman Morgan called the signal to each other.


“Does the local work Saturday nights?” Dunker asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Morgan replied.

“Maybe he’s clearing up at Dongola.”

The local was still switching the Ramp Track at Dongola. The ramp track was a stub ended siding on the west side of the mainline, located between the main tracks and a side street. Conductor Rees was on the ground near his caboose, while the brakeman and flagman were doing the switching work at the south end of the siding.

At 2:59am, conductor Rees heard a train to the north and saw a headlight lighting up the curve. Instantly he realized the train was not going to stop. He shouted a warning to his son, and started running away from his train.

#51 was riding the brakes down the .8 percent grade toward Dongola, approaching signal 337.5 at around 25 miles per hour. The signal was located in the middle of a reverse curve; the track coming out of a left hand curve, passing the signal, and curving back to the right into Dongola.

“Red!” brakeman Morgan called as the signal came into view, and Dunker put the train into emergency. At the same instant, the men in the cab of #51 saw the red marker light on the local’s caboose, which was only 600 feet south of the signal.

Brakeman Morgan decided to jump. He ran out the back door of the cab behind the engineer, down the walkway to the rear steps and bailed off after the passing the signal. Dunker and a deadheading engineer decided to ride out the collision, hitting the deck seconds before impact. The rest of the men aboard, an off duty engineer in the second locomotive and the conductor and brakeman in the caboose, had no idea anything was wrong until hearing the brakes go into emergency.

The impact of the collision shoved the local 150 feet. The caboose was spun around nearly 150 degrees, coming to rest across the northbound main. It was considered a total loss, as were the four rear cars of the local. #51 traveled 544 feet from the point of the initial impact; the lead unit tearing up the Ramp Track and plowing into Front Street. All three locomotives were derailed, as were the first two cars of the train.

Conductor Rees’s son was still in the cupola of the caboose when #51 hit it. Fortunately he suffered only minor injuries; abrasions and a concussion. None of the local’s crew were injured. Engineer Dunker on #51 received a fractured rib and bruises in the back an shoulder in the wreck, while brakeman Morgan sustained strained muscles jumping from the train. None of the rest of the men aboard reported injuries, though the deadheading engineer who was riding in the second unit died six days later of heart failure.

The cause of the Dongola wreck boiled down to one thing: speed. The crew of #51 had a late train, and was in a hurry to get over the road.

It was 82.5 miles from B Yard in Centralia to the point of the collision, and the train averaged 62 miles per hour for that distance. The posted speed limit for last 30 miles was 50 miles per hour, and speed restrictions of 40 through DuQuoin and 10 through Carbondale also came into play. From Centralia to Carbondale was posted 60 miles per hour. Needless to say, for the train to average 62 miles per hour the train had to have not only been speeding, but speeding by a considerable amount.

The final piece of the puzzle was the crew of #51 approaching a signal that was likely to indicate proceeding at restricted speed too fast to stop in violation of the rules. Perhaps the crew assumed the next signal would be something other than it turned out to be. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be a bad night at Dongola.

Author’s note: This article was written using the official accident report as a reference. Dialogue is inferred from statements in the report for dramatic effect.


Photos courtesy of Homer Morgan

Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 8:47 am

    A story well told!

  2. Shirley Vancil permalink
    February 16, 2022 2:34 pm

    Great story!

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