The 1953 Pennsylvania Railroad train wreck was a railway accident which occurred at Union Station in Washington, D.C. on January 15, 1953. The brakes on the cars of the Federal Express, a passenger and mail train operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, malfunctioned and the train crashed into the station, jumped the passenger platform, and plunged through the floor of the passenger terminal into the basement of the station. There were no deaths, and only 43 people were injured.
The Federal Express (No. 173), was a southbound, Boston-to-Washington, D.C., overnight train carrying mail and passengers. When the train arrived in New Haven, a New Haven electric locomotive replaced the diesel along with adding several passenger cars from Springfield for the run to New York's Penn Station where PRR GG1 No. 4876, an electric locomotive, was coupled on, The train had 16 coaches and sleeping cars (known as "Pullmans").
The Federal Express departed Boston at 11:00 P.M. After making two stops, the train halted about 70 miles (110 km) south of Boston. Its brakes were sticking, and a 45-minute inspection occurred. Conductors discovered a closed "angle cock" (a shutoff valve) at the rear of the third car. The airbrake system aboard the rail cars had angle cocks at each end of each car. Both valves had to be open for the airbraking system to operate. The only closed valve would be that at the rear of the final car. Airbrakes on trains are powered by a compressed air tank aboard each car. The engine generates air pressure that is supposed to flow through the airbrake system along the entire length of the train. When this pressure is lessened, valves on the pressurized air tanks come open. The air from the tanks put pressure on the brake disks (or the tread of the wheel), which push against the wheels and cause braking to occur. If the cars separate, from one another or from the engine, the pressure automatically drops and the cars will brake to a stop. Closing an angle cock at any point along the system keeps the air pressure in the airbrakes high, thereby preventing the engine from reducing the air pressure and activating the braking system.
A routine inspection during the train's stop in New York City, inspectors later said, found the angle cock in the correct, open position. But an after-accident investigation by the ICC revealed that the handle of the angle cock at the rear of the third coach was not in the correct position, as a design flaw on New Haven coach #8665 allowed the handle of the angle cock valve to come into contact with the car frame, causing the valve to close. This meant that the engine could only activate the braking power of the first three coaches.
The Federal Express departed New York City at 4:38 A.M. It made its regularly scheduled stops at Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; and Baltimore, Maryland. No braking trouble was reported at these stops. It departed Baltimore at 7:50 A.M.
Baltimore was the train's last stop before arriving at Union Station, its final destination. After leaving Baltimore, the train accelerated to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), its normal speed. As the train neared Landover, Maryland, engineer Henry W. Brower tried to slow the train for its approach into Washington. But the train slowed to just 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). Brower activated the emergency brakes, but the train only slowed to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h). Brower put the engine into reverse, but the electric engine began malfunctioning due to the stress placed on it. Sparks began issuing from the wheels of the engine and first three coaches as they tried to slow the train.
The Federal Express now began descending a 5,500-foot (1,700 m) long section of track on a relatively steep 0.73 percent grade. This caused the train to accelerate. Brower began making the railroad's distress signal on the engine's air horn.
In the train yard at Union Station, towerman John Feeney in K Tower set the switches to shunt the Federal Express onto Track 16. But when the train raced past him at high speed, he telephoned the stationmaster's office. Clerk Ray Klopp picked up the phone. Feeney shouted, "Runaway on Track 16!" Klopp looked up to see the train racing directly toward his office. He shouted, "Run for your lives!" Then he and the other clerks ran out of the office as fast as they could. (They had just 20 seconds to get out of harm's way.) Aboard the train, conductor Thomas J. Murphy ran through the train from end to end, shouting at the passengers to get down as low as they could on the floor or on their seats.
Passengers aboard the train knew something was wrong. The train would normally be moving very slowly as it passed beneath Florida Avenue. But this time it rushed past the bridge.
The Federal Express was still moving at about 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) when it was 1,000 feet (300 m) from the terminal. It had slowed to just 35 miles per hour (56 km/h) when it struck the bumper (the steel stanchion at the end of the track). The train crashed through the buffer stop, then through the stationmaster's office, and then demolished a newsstand. The locomotive began skidding to its right. It also destroyed a steel pillar in the concourse, and tore through the concourse's concrete floor (which was 6 inches (15 cm) higher than the tracks outside).
The floor, not designed to hold the weight of a train, gave way beneath the 475,000 lb (215.5-tonne) locomotive, and the rear of the engine plunged into the baggage and mail rooms in the basement below.
Two coaches came loose from the engine and the rest of the train. One of them slid onto the concourse to the right of engine, coming to rest almost abreast of it. The other nosed downward behind the engine into the gigantic hole in the concourse floor. Six more coach cars jumped the tracks behind the train.
The engine was just inches from smashing into the crowded waiting room beyond the concourse. A Life magazine photo showed the nose of the engine just pushing open the doors to the waiting room.
Amazingly, no one died during the accident. Only 43 people were injured (six seriously enough to require overnight hospitalization). Most of the workers in the basement had just departed for their coffee break, which spared their lives. Four Union Station workers were briefly trapped in the wreckage, but quickly extricated. The engineer had no injuries, and the fireman received only scratches. Both men climbed out of the engine under their own power.
The stationmaster's clock, which was found in the wreckage, showed the time as 8:38 A.M.
NBC News was able to broadcast live from Union Station just 67 minutes after the wreck occurred. This was, for the time, one of the fastest live nationwide broadcasts ever made.
Despite the extensive damage to Union Station, train service to and from D.C. was delayed but not cancelled. The railroad called in a local contractor, Steiner Construction Co. of Baltimore to assess the damage and make temporary repairs. Working round the clock, the engine was first lowered into basement, and dismantled. It was shipped back to the Pennsylvania Railroad's yards in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where it was rebuilt. It remained in service for the next 30 years. The engine is currently in storage at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Steiner Construction erected a temporary wooden floor over the hole in the concourse, and covered it with quick-drying asphalt in just two days. The workers also built a temporary station master's office and newsstand in time for the crowds coming in to DC. The incident occurred just five days before the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the 34th President of the United States.
The wreck of the Federal Express later inspired a similar scene in the 1976 motion picture Silver Streak.