Bullitt County History

Shepherdsville Train Wreck - 1917
Supplement #2

The following is transcribed from Railway Signal Engineer, Volume 11, No. 4, April 1918, pages 118-121. While it repeats a great deal of what has already been said on other pages here, it is of sufficient value to include as well.

The figures mentioned were in Mr. Belnap's original report, and were not included in this volume.


THE Interstate Commerce Commission has issued a report, dated January 28, and signed by H. W. Belnap, chief of the Bureau of Safety, giving the cause and nature of the rear collision of passenger trains on the Louisville & Nashville at Shepherdsville, Ky., on December 20, when 45 passengers and 2 employees were killed and 52 passengers were injured. A brief report of this collision was contained in the January number of the Railway Signal Engineer.

Engineman Wolfenberger of No. 7 said that it did not occur to him that not getting the signal at Shepherdsville was due to train 41 being close ahead, although he knew that he left Louisville 18 min. behind it. He had been losing time himself. The fireman was on his beat, but did not say anything to Wolfenberger about the signals.

The report makes no mention of the statement reported to have been made by Wolfenberger at the investigation which was held by the Kentucky State Railroad Commission to the elfect that operators often change the train order signal from stop to proceed before the engineman calls for it, and that consequently enginemen were accustomed to accept the stationary signal (contrary to the rule requiring them to see the signal change from stop to proceed). Below is given an abstract of the report as submitted by Mr. Belnap to the Commission:

The Louisville division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, on which this accident occurred, extends between Louisville and Bowling Green, Ky., a distance of 113.6 miles. It is for the most part a single-track line, but from Louisville to Lebanon Junction, a distance of 29.7 miles, the track is double. It was on this doubletrack section, about 18 miles south of Louisville, that the collision occurred. On this division trains are operated under a time interval and dispatching system, no block system being used.

The trains involved in this accident were southbound passenger train No. 41, consisting of engine 18 with three cars, in charge of Conductor Campbell and Engineman Keyer, en route from Louisville, Ky, to Springfield, Ky., and southbound passenger train No. 7, consisting of engine 230 and nine cars, in charge of Conductor Ogle and Engineman Wolfenberger, en route from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Montgomery, Ala.

Train No. 41 is a local train which leaves the main track of the Louisville division at Bardstown Junction. 22 miles south of Louisville. On the date of the accident this train left Louisville on time, at 4:35 p. m., but was unable to make schedule time on account of holiday travel. At Brooks, a station 5 miles north of Shepherdsville, the train dispatcher told Conductor Campbell, through the station operator, to let train No. 7 pass at Shepherdsville if he could not go to Bardstown Junction on time. The train left Brooks at 5:13 p.m., seven minutes late, and arrived at Shepherdsville at 5:24, six minutes late. After doing the station work, Conductor Campbell notified Engineman Keyer, through the train porter, to move ahead beyond the south passing track switch, located about 400 feet south of the station, and back into the sidetrack to permit train No. 7 to pass. It was after the passing track switch had been opened, and the train was about to back in that its rear end was struck by train No. 7, moving at a speed estimated at 25 miles per hour. The collision occurred about 5:30 p. m., at which time it was dark, but the weather was clear.


Train No. 7 left Louisville at 4:53 p.m., 1 hour and 53 minutes late. It passed Brooks at 5:23, 10 minutes behind train 41, and collided with that train about 400 feet south of Shepherdsville station about 5:30 p.m., as above stated.

The force of the collision drove train No. 41 forward a distance of 800 feet, completely telescoping the rear coach and crushing the rear compartment of the compartment car next to the rear coach. Figures Nos. 1 and 2 are views of the rear coach and compartment coach, respectively, of train No. 41 after the accident. All of the wreckage was shoved ahead with train No. 7 until it came to a stop. The engine and baggage car of train No. 41 remained coupled together and were driven ahead about 150 feet beyond where the wrecked cars stopped. All of the cars in this train were of wooden construction.

On train No. 7 the express car next to the engine was crushed in for 8 or 10 feet and the sides of the car were bulged. The baggage cars was not damaged with the exception of a broken steam pipe and no other cars in the train were damaged. The engine of train No. 7 had its front end crushed and some other parts broken, as shown by figure No. 3, but was not derailed. Five of the cars on this train were of wood with steel under-frame, and three were of all-steel construction.

Conductor Campbell and Flagman Greenwall were on the platform between the rear coach and the compartment car at the time of the collision, and both were killed.

Approaching Shepherdsville station from the north the track is level for a distance of 2,100 feet, and is straight for 8,400 feet north of the point of collision. In this distance of more than 8,000 feet there is nothing to obstruct the view of the engineman of an approaching train.

At a point 2,500 feet north of Shepherdsville station the main tracks are spread to provide for a middle passing track, 2,900 feet long and extending 400 feet south of the station. The station itself is on the west side of the tracks and adjacent to the southbound main track.

Train order signals are used for the purpose of maintaining a time interval of 10 minutes, at open telegraph offices, between trains running in the same direction. The signals are of the two-arm type, operating in two positions in the lower right hand quadrant. The night indications are green for proceed and red for stop. The signals are normally held in the stop position, and the rules require enginemen of trains, when approaching a train order office, to sound four short blasts of the whistle, whereupon, if it is proper for the train to proceed, the operator is required to clear the signal, and hold it in the clear position until the rear end of the train has passed 200 feet beyond the signal, when it must again be changed to the stop position. Enginemen are required to see the position of the signal change. If it is not changed in full view of the engineman he is required to bring his train to a stop and not proceed without an order or a clearance card.

The direct cause of this accident was the failure of the conductor and flagman of train 41 properly to protect their train. Knowing that they were on the time of train 7, and that it could not be far behind, the action of these two experienced employees in failing to protect their train is inexcusable.

A material contributing cause of the accident was the failure of Engineman Wolfenberger properly to observe the train order signal at Shepherdsville and so control his train as to stop before passing the signal, as required by rule.

A large measure of responsibility for this accident must rest with the operating officers of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad for their failure to provide proper means of spacing trains in this territory.

Between South Louisville and Lebanon Junction, which territory embraces the scene of this accident, there are 44 scheduled trains in both directions daily. Traffic of such density cannot be safely handled under the rules and practices of the time-interval system. For the prevention of similar accidents the operating officers of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad should take immediate steps to provide an adequate block system for the protection of trains on this section of road.

Rules 221 (a) and (d), which assume to provide means for the proper spacing of trains in this territory, are grossly inadequate, if not positively unworkable. Rule 221 (a) requires that when an approaching train has reached a point 600 feet from the signal, "or nearer if the signal cannot be seen that far," the engineman will call for the signal, and if it is not changed to the proceed position at once the train must be brought to a stop before the signal is reached, as required by rule 221 (d), which reads as follows:

"Conductors and enginemen when approaching train-order offices must have their trains under control and must not assume that the signal will be changed from “stop” indication when within the distance prescribed, as if any portion of a train runs beyond the signal before it is so changed an infraction of these rules will have been committed."

Rules 221 (a) and (d) establish a maximum braking distance of 600 feet, which is entirely inadequate for the safe movement of high-speed passenger trains. The schedule rate of speed of train No. 7 between Brooks and Shepherdsville is 50 miles per hour, and had the signal been in its normal position the engineman of train No. 7 could not have stopped short of the signal without having reduced speed very materially at a point considerably farther away than 600 feet. In short, compliance with this rule means that, irrespective of their schedules, trains must approach all open train—order offices and be prepared to stop within a distance of 600 feet.

The method of operation also by which trains are informed through verbal messages of the whereabouts of following trains which may be expected to pass them is not a safe one to follow, except where a proper block system is in use. Rule 103 requires that messages directing the movement of trains must be in writing. This rule was violated by the dispatcher in his handling of train 41.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad in its annual reports to the Interstate Commerce Commission has repeatedly stated that this section of the road from Louisville to Bardstown Junction was operated under manual block rules. It is clearly disclosed by this investigation, however, that such protection is not afforded, and furthermore it is evident that such protection was not intended to be given. Several witnesses stated that it was the practice to space trains 10 minutes apart. This spacing of trains is provided for in rule 91, which reads as follows:

"Unless some form of block signals is used, trains in the same direction must keep at least 10 minutes apart, except in closing up at meeting and passing stations."

This rule is found among the general rules for movement of trains, and there is no rule among those providing for train movement under the manual block which permits this method of operating trains. It is therefore apparent that the manual block system is not in force on this portion of the road, notwithstanding the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company's reports that have been made to that effect.

During the past 5 years about 700 miles of road of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad have been protected by automatic block signals, most of which is on singletracked portions of the road. According to its reports for 1916, 132 miles of road are worked under the manual block system. With 4,700 miles of road operated, this gives about 20 per cent of its passenger mileage protected by some form of space interval, and of its principal main lines about 45 per cent is so protected. While this shows commendable progress, the fact remains that there are still long sections of its main lines which are carrying heavy traffic without having adequate protection.

All the employees involved in this accident were experienced men. The engine crew on train 41 had been on duty about 5 hours and 45 minutes and the train crew about 12 hours previous to the accident. The crew of train 7 had only been on duty about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday appointments are available by calling 502-921-0161 during our regular weekday hours. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 12 Jan 2024 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/trainwreck1917s2.html