book review

The Malbone Street Wreck  
by Brian Cudahy

Reviewed by Paul Matus  Page 4

At the very beginning of the book, Cudahy puts the Malbone Street Wreck into a similar context with the Lindburgh Kidnapping and the Sinking of the Titanic, notable events of the first half of the 20th century, and events from which he and his family drew important lessons. There is a broad social and political context in New York in which to place the Malbone Street Wreck, but I'm not certain Cudahy has achieved this.
     He seems to be striving to set down the sequence of events as dispassionately as possible, as though he were writing findings of fact in a court of history. He chooses among explanations for a particular happening, not always accounting for other theories. Now and then he simply ignores issues that figured prominently in contemporary accounts but proved of little moment later. Most significantly he does not expand upon some of the events and personalities on which he touches, which might have added richness to the story and a broader historical context.
     So to whom is this book most likely to appeal?
     It is a treasure trove for the person, especially the rail or urban history buff, who already knows something about the accident, but who is frustrated looking for the pieces of the puzzle that make up the complete story of the wreck. For these readers, Cudahy takes them to the scene, so the speak, and fills in most of the blank spaces.
     He does especially well in dispelling the wilder rumors that have become urban folklore over the decades, especially the ridiculous "electrocution" tale, which had fully a quarter of the passengers who died surviving the initial crash, only to be electrocuted by foolhardy power plant workers. This, among other hoary tales, Cudahy disposes of neatly. 
     For the average reader, the one who might pick up a tale of the Titanic or the fate of the Donner Party, might it prove a little dry? It would be interesting to see how such a person reacts to the book. Would they be disappointed, prefering instead the colorful lies that have served for 80 years, or might they hunger to learn even more?
     I have one argument with the book that I suspect is not Cudahy's doing at all. The dustjacket blurb asks "Could another Malbone Street Wreck happen at some future time in New York, or on any other U.S. mass-transit system?" I suspect the question may have been posed by a publicist writing the blurb rather by than the author. The answer is to be found by "[t]ransit professionals [...] after they read Cudahy's account", we are told, so I thought that the question would be directly addressed in the text.
     Since I have an opinion on this question, I looked forward to the final chapter to see whether Cudahy and I had the same point of view, so I was disappointed to find nothing at all that addressed the issue.
     But what is the answer to the question? Certainly the exact conditions of the wreck could not be duplicated today: wooden cars have been banned from passenger service in subway tunnels for decades, automatic tripping devices are universal, downhill runs are "grade timed." There are no union insurgencies to split striking from non-striking employees and the system simply shuts down in a polite and orderly fashion if a strike does occur. Does this mean we are now safe?
     Perhaps the question should be couched differently: Could a deadly wreck involving an out-of-control train operator, lax supervision on many levels, a disregard of safe operating procedures, and equipment of doubtful structural integrity happen in the modern world? It already has. It was called the Union Square Wreck, and it occurred in 1991, 73 years after we should have learned the lessons of Malbone Street.






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