THE FAMOUS UNION STATION TRAIN WRECK
We are often asked for more information about
the most famous train wreck in Washington, D.C., which took
place on January 15, 1953. The following information
provides some history about the wreck. It was compiled
by a member of our Chapter and is reprinted with his permission
from the January 1999 issue of Potomac Chapter NRHS'
Potomac Rail News.
THE WRECK OF THE FEDERAL EXPRESS
By: Bob Cohen
In 1953 we witnessed what
was perhaps the most spectacular modern runaway passenger
train wreck: The wreck of the Federal Express, January 15,
1953, at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. The exact time
of the occurrence--8:38AM--was forever etched in history by
the clock in the Station Master's office, which was located
at the end of Track 16 and demolished by the 1500+ ton juggernaut
when it passed through at a speed estimated to be between
Many Miracles occurred
1) No one was killed on
board the train.
2) Somehow the train never
derailed as it passed through the maze of switches at the
mouth of the station.
3) No one was killed or
even seriously injured in the station due in large part
to one person's 30-second warning for people to scatter.
4) The telephone
in the Station Master's office was uncharacteristicly picked-up
on the lst or 2nd ring, probably due to the larger than
normal passenger traffic volume
created by the impending Presidential inauguration, only
five days away.
But what REALLY
happened to cause the brake failure? Why had something like
this not happened before? Why did it not happen again?
The most authoritative
accounts (and most widely available) of the incident were
expertly detailed in the August 1953 issue of "TRAINS
TRAVEL Magazine" (now known as "TRAINS Magazine"),
and the April 1953 issue of "The Locomotive Engineer's
Journal," which was published by the Brotherhood of Locomotive
Engineers. These two accounts provide interested readers with
the easiest access to information about this pre-inaugural
event. Of course, the three Washington Daily Newspapers of
the day: The Washington Post, The Times Herald, and The Evening
Star all give vivid details and photographs of the day's events
and other newspapers throughout the nation gave wide coverage
of the accident. Finally, highly detailed information on the
events surrounding the accident is provided in the Interstate
Commerce Commission's accident report, which is quoted here,
The single cause
of the accident was the improper placement of the angle cock
on certain New Haven Railroad coaches that caused it to strike
a buffer pocket and resulted in the angle cock turning and
closing off the application of air to all those cars behind
where the angle cock had been turned. The use of angle cocks
permits the airbrakes to be automatically controlled from
the locomotive. The exact wording of the Interstate Commerce
Commission findings and recommendations are as follows:
1. The angle cocks
on New Haven car 8665 and other cars of similar construction
are so located that the handles of the angle cocks are permitted
to come in contact with the bottom cross member of the buffer
pocket portion of the underframe end construction.
2. Between the
time the brakes of (Train #) 173 were released after the
train stopped in Baltimore and the time the engineer attempted
to apply the brakes as the train approached Washington,
DC, the angle cock at the rear of car 8665, the third car
of #173, became closed, obviously as a result of contact
between the handle and the bottom cross member, and after
this occurred the brakes of the rear 13 cars of the train
could not be applied from the locomotive.
3. The engineer
was not aware of the condition of the airbrake system until
he attempted to reduce the speed by use of the air brakes.
4. Because the
air brakes of the rear 13 cars could not be applied from
the locomotive after the angle cock had become closed, the
engineer was not able to stop the train short of the end
of station track #16.
5. The two train-service
employees who were in the cars behind the third car did
not become aware of the necessity of making an emergency
brake application until it was too late for them to take
that all passenger train cars equipped with tightlock or similar
type couplers operated over any railroad subject to the Interstate
Commerce Act be inspected immediately, and that such cars
on which any angle cock is so located that the handle can
come into contact with any other portion or appurtenance of
the car be withheld from service until such condition is corrected."
parts of this story that have been largely forgotten:
1) The problem
had in fact cropped-up earlier on the trip down from
Boston and the train was delayed
for 57-1/2 minutes in Kingston Swamp, RI, isolating the
condition and resetting the offending angle cock on the
rear of the third car.
2) When engines
and engine crews were changed at New Haven, CT, from the
New Haven RR diesels to the New Haven RR electrics, no word
was passed on about the angle cock problem to the new engine
3) At Penn Station
New York, a complete change of train crews, engines, and
engine crews took place. The Pennsylvania RR took over from
this point onward. Once again, no word passed on about the
problem out in Kingston Swamp, nor was there any reason
to suspect that anything was amiss.
4) When the train
left Kingston Swamp it was 57-1/2 minutes late and was able
to make-up time all the way to Baltimore, MD, being 48 minutes
late leaving New Haven, 38 minutes late leaving Penn Station,
New York, and only 18 minutes late leaving Baltimore after
a 5-minute stop.
5) The engineer's
name on GG-1 #4876, Train #173, was Harry W. Brower, aged
65 with over 40 years experience on the Pennsylvania RR.
His fireman was John W. Moyer. The conductor was T.J. Murphy.
6) GG-1 #4876
currently resides in Baltimore, MD, as part of the B&O
Railroad Museum's collection. It is not on public display
and awaits restoration.
7) Moments after
the wreck, a surprised and uninjured engineer and fireman
calmly stepped out from the front end of cab onto all the
debris that had fallen about them. They, like everyone else,
were still puzzled as to why the brakes had failed to operate
properly. Engineer Brower then suddenly remembered he had
left his four timetables in the wrecked motor and asked
his fireman to retrieve them for him while he (Brower) looked
to render aid where needed.
8) Engine #4876
started its service life painted Brunswick Green. After
the Federal Express wreck, it returned to service in October,
1953, painted Tuscan Red and remained in this color scheme
until Penn Central/Amtrak when it received the customary
Black, which is the color (if you want to call it that)
it retains to this day. Retirement came in 1981 after over
40 years of active service.
9) As the engines
were changed in New Haven, CT, three additional sleepers
were added to the train making it 16 cars in length.
10) At Baltimore,
MD, the last stop before Washington, DC, several dozen commuters
embarked for the short journey to Washington, unaware, of
course, of the historic event that would unfold in less
than 45 minutes.
there was very little disruption to the normal flow of rail
travel, other than the obvious closing of Track 16 and adjacent
tracks for rendering assistance and cleanup. Within two
days, the entire area was covered over and all returned
to normal, except to the trained eye. The passenger cars
had all been removed but it would be nearly another two
weeks before the GG-1 would be cut up into smaller pieces
and removed from the basement baggage room for reassembly
in Altoona, PA.
12) Try as they
might, no "Communist Conspiracy" was ever seriously
advanced. The cause of the accident was plainly and clearly
the angle cock striking the buffer pocket.
13) After the
engineer applied the brakes, with very little response,
the train essentially skidded for up to 2 miles, with a
trail of sparks all the way. when the cars and brakes were
examined after the wreck, the engine and first 3 cars' brakes
were scorched and flat, but the rear 13 cars, brakes showed
no signs of wear. It has been said that the 237-ton GG-1
locomotive had flat spots on its wheels over 5 inches long!
14) This writer
has been told by a person in the area at the time who worked
for Washington Terminal RR Co. that after the stop, a lady
commuter disembarked from the rear of the train, totally
unaware of the events which had just unfolded with the comment
"That's the roughest stop I have EVER had!" It
is also recorded that a passenger broke-out one of the windows
in his car stating, "I've always wanted to do that."
15) When the brakes
were first applied, the train was at legal speed of 80 MPH
or so. In the two miles of mostly sliding down a slight
downgrade into the station, the train had slowed, by most
estimates, to a speed of 35-50 MPH.