Accident at Wyche, California



FEBRUARY 13, 1969

The Accident

About 8:20 p.m., February 13, 1970, an eastbound Western Pacific freight train struck a motor vehicle occupied by the driver and fifteen passengers at a rail-highway grade crossing near Wyche, Calif., a railroad timetable point located 9.3 miles east of Tracy, Calif. The weather was cloudy.


The driver of the motor vehicle and seven passengers were killed. Two other passengers were injured.


Driver moving his vehicle onto the crossing and deliberately stopping it on the track while crossing-warning signals were indicating the close approach of a train.


The motor vehicle was destroyed. The front of the train locomotive was slightly damaged.

Railroad Operation and Physical Characteristics

The accident occurred on that part of the railroad extending eastward from Tracy to Stockton, Calif., a distance of 21.0 miles. This is a single-track line over which trains operate by signal indications of a traffic control system. In the accident area, trains move northward and southward by geographical directions. The timetable directions, however, are east and west, and such directions are used in this report.

The collision occurred on the main track, 9.3 miles east of Tracy and near the siding at Wyche, where the railroad is crossed at grade by California State Road No. 120. From the west, there is a compound curve to the left, having a maximum curvature of 1000' for 5101 feet to the accident point and a considerable distance eastward. The railroad grade in this area is practically level.

State Road 120

This road, a two-lane highway, is tangent and practically level a considerable distance north and south of the railroad crossing. It is surfaced with bituminous material, and crosses the railroad at an angle of 65006'. Except for planking laid alongside of each rail, the crossing is surfaced with bituminous material.

Crossing Protection

The crossing is provided with floodlights and is protected by two automatic signals of the flashing red-light type with bell. Each signal mast is provided with a cantilever extending above the surface of the road. Two pairs of red lamps are attached, back-to-back, on each signal mast, and another two pairs of red lamps, back-to-back, are fixed to the free end of each cantilever.

The circuits are so arranged that when an eastbound train reaches a point 3409 feet from the crossing, the red lamps of the signals start to flash and the signal bells begin to ring. The lamps and bells continue to function until the train moves over the crossing.

A whistle sign for eastbound trains is 1387 feet west of the crossing.

View at the Crossing

Because of track curvature, and houses, trees and shrubbery in the northwest angle of the crossing, the view between an approaching eastbound train and a vehicle on the crossing is restricted to 740 feet.

Authorized Speeds

The maximum authorized speed for freight trains and highway vehicles in approach to the crossing is 50 m.p.h.

Circumstances Involved in the Accident


Extra 2007 East, an eastbound freight train consisting of 1 road-switcher type diesel-electric unit, 12 cars and a caboose, left Tracy at 8:05 p.m. the day of the accident. About 15 minutes later, while moving at 45 to 50 m.p.h., as estimated by crew members, it approached the point near Wyche where State Road 120 crosses the main track. The headlight was lighted brightly and the fireman, a qualified engineer, was at the locomotive controls.

The fireman said that he began to sound the prescribed signal on the locomotive horn as the train neared the whistle sign west of the crossing, and that he continued to sound the horn throughout the approach of the train to the crossing. When the crossing came into view at a distance of 740 feet, both the engineer and fireman saw that a van-type station wagon was stopped across the main track. The fireman said he immediately applied the train brakes in emergency. A few moments later, before its speed was materially reduced by the brake application, the train entered the crossing and struck the station wagon at the middle of its right side. The station wagon was impaled by the coupler at the front of the locomotive and carried to a point 4318 feet east of the crossing, where the front of the train stopped.

Station Wagon

The vehicle was owned by its driver, a 17-year old boy with a clear driving record and a valid California driver's license. It was a 1961 Chevrolet Corvair station wagon of the van type, having a rear motor originally rated at 95 horsepower, a three-forward-speed manual transmission, and an overall length of 15 feet. It was designed to carry nine persons, including the driver. However, it had only one factory-made seat, for the driver and two passengers alongside. According to a survivor, its rear compartment was furnished with plywood bench-type seats, and cushions or pillows for sitting on the floor. The vehicle had a door on each side of the front seat; double doors on the right side of the rear passenger compartment, and double doors at the rear of that compartment. The handles for the double doors at the rear end were on the outside. All side windows of the rear compartment had curtains made of heavy cloth material.

A service station operator tuned the station-wagon's motor ten days before the accident and, during the course of the tune-up, found that a valve was sticking. He informed the owner-driver that the motor probably could deliver only about three-fourths of its normal power, because of the sticking valve. He said the owner-driver deferred the necessary repairs in favor of purchasing two used tires.

History of Station Wagon Movement

During the day of the accident, the owner of the station wagon, accompanied by friends, drove his vehicle to several meeting points for teenagers, and to homes of friends in Tracy and Manteca, Calif. Early in the evening, he and a group of friends drove in and around Tracy. They eventually stopped at a high school, where another group of friends entered the vehicle. Some time later, apparently about 8:05 or 8:10 p.m., the station wagon left Tracy and proceeded toward Manteca, a distance of about 14 miles, to take one of the teenagers home. The owner-driver, a 15-year old girl, and an 18-year boy occupied the front seat. Thirteen boys and girls, ages 13 to 17 years old, occupied the portion of the vehicle behind the front seat. The curtains of the side windows for this portion of the station wagon were closed. According to survivors, the driver had experienced difficulty in shifting gears during the day and after departure from Tracy, and the motor had stalled on some occasions.

Best information available indicates the station wagon proceeded toward Manteca, on State Road 120, with the radio playing and with the occupants talking and singing. As it approached the railroad crossing near Wyche, the driver saw that the automatic crossing signals were indicating the approach of a train and stopped his vehicle short of the track. Immediately afterward, while the crossing signals continued to function, he drove the vehicle onto the crossing and stopped it with the wheels straddling the track. According to an autoist stopped short of the track, the approaching train was not visible from the crossing at that time, but the glow of its headlight could be seen.

The driver was reportedly laughing when he stopped the station wagon on the crossing in front of the train, and the indications are that he stopped it there to give his passengers a thrill. In any event, soon after the vehicle stopped, the male passenger in the front seat saw the train come into view on the curve and yelled to the driver, "Let's go." The driver immediately attempted to start the station wagon moving forward, but the motor stalled. He then began to manipulate the gear-shift lever and ignition key in unsuccessful attempts to restart the motor. While this was being done, the male passenger in the front seat called a warning to the other passengers, opened the front door on the right side of the vehicle, and assisted the girl beside him to safety. Four other passengers, from the rear compartment, escaped from the vehicle via the double doors on the right side just before it was struck by the train.

The impact threw four passengers out of the station wagon, killing two and injuring two. The driver and five remaining passengers were not ejected from the vehicle, and were also killed by the collision.

The investigation revealed no evidence of the driver having been under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, marijuana, etc. at the time of the collision.


1. The train was moving in accordance with applicable railroad rules and regulations.

2. When the station wagon was seen to be standing on the crossing and the train brakes were applied in emergency, there was insufficient braking distance for the train to reduce speed materially before it entered the crossing and struck the highway vehicle.

3. The station wagon stopped short of the track in compliance with the crossing signals, which were indicating the close approach of the train. The driver then moved it onto the crossing and deliberately stopped on the track in front of the approaching train while the signals were still functioning.

4. Apparently due to its overloaded condition and a poor condition of the motor, the station wagon stalled on the crossing when the driver attempted to move it clear of the on-coming train, resulting in the collision.

5. The driver's act of deliberately stopping his vehicle on the crossing, while an approaching train was in hazardous proximity thereto, was the primary cause of the accident.

Dated at Washington, D. C., this 21st
day of December 1970
By the Federal Railroad Administration

Mac E. Rogers, Director
Bureau of Railroad Safety