METUCHEN, N.J. — In the grand scheme of railroad history, the 1977 derailment of a freight train in Metuchen was a decidedly minor event.
But, for this borough of 17,000, the event was quite the spectacle.
It was June 22, 1977, when 17 cars of an 87-car Conrail freight train traveling from Virginia to New York derailed as it was switching tracks near the Lincoln interlocking tower. The ensuing wreck, which sent at least one boxcar onto Main Street below, blocked all four tracks of the busy main line between New York and Washington.
An investigation revealed the train, which was traveling between 27 and 45 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, apparently derailed after an axle of a freight car overheated, a situation known as a hotbox.
The real issue was the potential leak of hazardous materials. Two of the derailed cars contained chlorine gas and a third car was carrying a “caustic acid solution,” according to a New York Times report.
A Major Issue of the Time
The derailment was one of 10 in New Jersey between April 1, 1977, and June 30, 1978, involving railway cars containing hazardous materials. The Metuchen mishap represented the greatest potential for a loss of life, according to state records.
“I’m grateful that no person was injured or killed,” the Metuchen Recorder quoted U.S. Rep. Edward J Patten, D-N.J., as saying. “We may not be that lucky if an accident takes place again.”
Despite the absence of fatalities or injuries, there were a few close calls.
“It was very close, scary for a while,” The New York Times quoted Metuchen Police Sgt. John E. Tilkey as saying. “We heard the squeal of metal against metal while we were in the underpass but as we came out my wife looked and saw sparks. A large piece of metal hit the ground near us, then all hell broke loose. She started to run. I turned, saw the sparks and saw a boxcar standing straight up in the air. I ran and could see the boxcar coming down.”
A Festive Atmosphere
Despite the near disaster, the derailment created an aura of excitement in the town.
One resident said the derailment was “the most exciting thing to happen locally since the St. Louis Cardinals came to town for an exhibition baseball game in 1936,” the Home News reported.
“Children on bicycles raced around the station trying to elude policemen so they could get a closer look at the wrecked cars, which were strewn about like toy trains,” The New York Times reported.
Apparently, some commuters lamented the derailment did not take out the town’s historic 1888 train depot, which they had been working for some years to replace. The station was upgraded in 1979.
The derailment, which illustrated the woes facing railroads in the late 1970s, sparked Congressional hearings.
The first track reopened at around 4:55 p.m. on June 23. Four Amtrak trains were waiting to pass through the affected area, a news report indicates.
“The name of the game is to get passengers moving. It doesn’t matter whether they’re their (ConRail) passengers or ours,” The Associated Press quoted an Amtrak spokesman as saying.
Editor’s Note: Reports vary on how many cars actually derailed, with reports saying 16, 17, 19 and 20 cars derailed. The consensus seems to be 17 cars.