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The 1953 crash at Union Station

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For some, traveling in and around Union Station in Washington can be a total train wreck.

The Pennsylvania Federal Express was a southbound, Boston-to-DC overnight train that carried both passengers and mail. Its 16 coaches and sleeping cars could accommodate about 400 people. Typically, folks could depart New England at 11 pm and arrive in the nation's capital at 8 the next morning.

Dwight Eisenhower's first inaugural was only five days away, and the city was humming and bustling a little more than usual. Train travel in 1953 was still the most popular way to go.

On January 15, Engineer Harry W. Brower, a man with over 40 years experience in transportation, took over the controls of the Federal Express in New York, and proceeded down through Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore. Everything ran smoothly; only green lights welcomed Brower along the dark and misty tracks.

But then, near Landover, two miles away from his endpoint, Brower first experienced some issues. He intended to ease his locomotive from 75 mph to a conservative 40 mph, and he gently applied the air brake. Alarmingly, the train could not slow itself under 60 mph. He pushed the brake again, and then pulled the emergency brakes, and then tried to yank his reverse lever. Nothing happened. The Federal Expressed sailed along, at 45 mph, over the DC line, past the Arboretum, zipping by some quiet neighborhoods like Fort Lincoln and Eckington.

At this point, passengers on board showed their surprise at this very aggressive arrival. Brower sounded his emergency whistles - two-way radios weren't in use at that time - and braced himself. The runaway train hummed along Track 16 straight into the concourse.

The 447,000 pound force split steel I-beams and cement walls like toothpicks. The thing scraped along the cement concourse floor for awhile, until the floor decided it couldn't hold 447,000 pounds. Most of the locomotive sank down into the basement and laid to rest. Brower was OK and so was his crew. There were no fatalities, and only 5 people were seriously injured. The authorities orchestrated some herculean clean-up efforts, and the Eisenhower inauguration went ahead without a hitch.

The Interstate Commerce Commission later determined that a device that supplied air to one of the brakes was faulty. Harry Brower was found cleared of any wrongdoing. In fact, he was praised for his poise under the harrowing circumstance. The man was back at work within the week, steering trains up and down the east coast as before.

Next time you're at the lower level Food Court in Union Station, ordering a yellowtail sushi roll, try to imagine the crash and wreckage of the poor Federal Express on that crazy January morning.

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