Wreckage of the Federal at Union Station, Washington, DC 1953.

Wreckage of train in Union Station, Washington, D.C.

(17 U.S. Code § 107, Fair Use, via Wikimedia Commons)



The 1953 Pennsylvania Railroad train wreck occurred on January 15, 1953, when a passenger and mail train from Boston to Washington DC (the Federal) failed to brake sufficiently on its approach to Union Station, Washington, jumping the platform and plunging through the floor of the concourse. There were no deaths, but 43 people were injured.

The cause of the accident was a design flaw that allowed a brake-valve to close without human intervention.


The wreck

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 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 barrier 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. (237.5 ton) 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 the 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, and thankfully, 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 frozen at 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 canceled. The railroad called in a local contractor, Steiner Construction Co. of Baltimore to assess the damage and make temporary repairs. As the incident occurred just five days before the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the 34th President of the United States, it was decided to make temporary repairs to accommodate the expected crowds. Working round the clock, the derailed cars were removed, the engine lowered into the basement, and 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. PRR No. 4876 was later cut up on site, with the pieces hauled up the baggage ramp into gondola cars to be shipped back to the Pennsylvania Railroad's main shop complex in Altoona, Pennsylvania. After new frames were ordered and a replacement superstructure fabricated, any components that were able to be reused went towards what was essentially a new 4876 that remained in service for another 30 years. Having been retired in 1983, 4876 is currently in storage at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore with no current plans for restoration.

The wreck of the Federal later inspired a similar scene in the 1976 motion picture Silver Streak.


PRR 4876 in 1959, six years after the wreck and looking almost new. Click to enlarge. (([Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 locomotive], photograph, 1959~; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth28695/: accessed May 18, 2023), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Museum of the American Railroad, cropped)


PRR 4876 stored outdoors at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, March 2013. Click to enlarge. (Payton Chung from DCA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Overview of Details

Date: January 15, 1953
Time: 8:38 A.M.
Location: Union Station, Washington, D.C.
Coordinates: 38.8988°N 77.0061°W
Country: United States
Line: Washington Union Terminal
Operator: Pennsylvania Railroad
Incident type: Overrun
Cause: Braking failure
Trains: 1
Passengers: 400
Deaths: 0
Injured: 43