On the night of January 14, 1953, Train #173, THE FEDERAL EXPRESS, left Boston on time for its scheduled arrival at Washington Union Station, 459 miles and 9-1/2 hours away. This was one of many trains bringing people to Washington for Eisenhower's first inauguration.
A minor brake problem was corrected after the scheduled station stop at Providence, RI. It seems that the valves that controlled the air brake connections between the third and fourth cars had closed. This prevented the rear cars from having the brakes released by the engineer in the locomotive. By opening the valve, the train was again able to move.
The train was about 56 minutes late due to the inspections, but the engineer made up about 11 minutes on the run into New Haven. There, the diesel engines were changed for electrics and the trainline brakes again checked. Everything seemed in order. Three more cars were added at New Haven for a total of 16 in the train.
More time was made up on the four track Shore Line through Connecticut and the train arrived at Pennsylvania Station, New York only 38 minutes late. The brakes had been used 14 times between New Haven and New York with no recurring trouble.
At Pennsylvania Station, GG-1 class electric locomotive #4876 replaced the New Haven electric for the remaining trip to Washington. The new engineer was Harry W. Bower, who was not told the reason the train was late, but did make the prescribed terminal brakes checks before moving the train.
The FEDERAL made stops at Philadelphia and Wilmington with a total of 14 more brake applications with no problems. By the time the train reached Baltimore, it had made up another three minutes. After clearing the Baltimore Yard Limits, Engineer Bower notched the controller up to 80 MPH for the run into Washington. He had no reason apply the brakes until the train reached signal #1339 about 2 miles from Union Station.
Bower shut the controller and applied a 17 pound brake this should have slowed the train considerably, but did not. He then realized that the train could not be stopped in time. He dropped sand and put the brakes into emergency this should have brought the train to a jarring halt, but did not.
All of the members of the operating crew realized the train was in trouble, but could do nothing about it. Bower stayed at his post and held the horn valve open to warn everyone away from track 16, where the FEDERAL was due to stop.
Bower knew that the engine brakes and maybe those on the first car had applied, but the other 15 cars were pushing them.
The train director at K Tower at the entrance to Union Station called the station master and said "There's a runaway coming at you on track 16 - get the hell outa there!" The train smashed through the station master's office behind the end of track 16. It seemed that the train would plow through the Waiting Room. The floor of the Concourse between the platforms and the Waiting Room gave way and the engine fell through to a baggage room below.
The clock in the Station Master's office stopped at 8:38AM - the FEDERAL was only 18 minutes late!
Because of the quick action of a few railroaders and a little luck, no one was killed and only 87 were injured. Property damage was estimated at $1 million.
This accident could not have happened at a worse time. Thousands were scheduled to arrive for the inauguration festivities.
By 7:00 AM the next day all of the cars were removed from the station, leaving only #4876 in the baggage room. A temporary floor was built over the engine and the station was open as usual within 72 hours of the accident.
After the inauguration, #4876 was cut into a number of pieces and shipped to the Pennsylvania's engine shop in Altoona, Pa. and was rebuilt and placed back into service.
Photo of #4876 in Penn Station, Newark. Photo by Pete Donner, collection of Joe Testagrose as posted on New York Subway Resources
Three photos found on the net by Richard Duley of the actual wreck.
Adapted from "A Treasury of RAILROAD FOLKLORE" - 1953
2007 by Joseph D. Korman