“The 17‐car accident occurred about 8:20 A.M. on Conrail’s West Chester-Media line, which passes through southwest Philadelphia. The site of the accident, near 53d Street and Baltimore Avenue, is an area of depressed housing, storefront businesses and abandoned automobile chassis situated about two miles from Center City.”
-The New York Times, October 17, 1979
When finished in 1858, the Philadelphia & West Chester Railroad new line connected Center City Philadelphia with farming communities in rural Chester County. By the late 1880s, as the formerly rural West and Southwest Philadelphia grew more developed, a bridge carried Chester Avenue over the railroad tracks, and a permanent station was constructed at the 49th Street intersection. By then the Philadelphia Railroad had absorbed the small West Chester line. Clusters of substantial Queen Anne style twin houses sprung up around the 49th Street station stop, and the formerly peripatetic Belmont Cricket Club moved to a large lot a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, a set-up mirroring the Merion Cricket Club’s on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line. Stops along the way to West Chester included the new towns of Philadelphia’s idyllic southwestern “Quaker” suburbs: Swarthmore, Rose Valley, Wallingford and Media.
In 1968, the financially troubled Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central merged into a goliath known as Penn Central. A decade later, Penn Central collapsed in the nation’s largest bankruptcy in American history, but not before it spun off its commuter operations, as well as some freight-hauling, to form a new entity called Conrail. Conrail’s operational record was spotty due to ancient PRR equipment and years of deferred maintenance. On October 1, 1979, two freight trains, one consisting of 44 cars and one of 111 cars, collided outside of Philadelphia, killing two crewmembers. Just over two weeks later, on October 16, disaster struck Conrail again, this time in West Philadelphia. The last two cars of the 7:27am commuter train from Media were not attaching properly to the rest of the train. The engineer moved all passengers forward, leaving the last two cars on the track. The next train into Philadelphia, the 7:47 from Media, picked up the two orphaned cars on its way. At 11 cars in length, the 7:47 was now quite ungainly, but the rush hour passengers probably appreciated the extra room.
Near the intersection of 53rd and Baltimore Avenue, the signal blinked “stop,” and the big 7:47 from Media came to a halt. A small, two-car train, the 7:07 from West Chester, stopped behind it. Onboard were about 1,200 people preparing for their workday. They chatted, read the paper, drank coffee, or dozed in their seats.
But there was another train coming around the bend, the 7:50 from Elwyn, whose engineer ignored the “stop” signal and plowed right into the parked West Chester train at nearly 30 miles an hour.
“Signals gave me the go‐ahead,” the engineer later claimed. Conrail would counter, “The signaling system was in proper working order.”
Pushed ahead by the force of the collision, the West Chester train then rear-ended the big 7:47 train from Media.
There was a cacophony of crunching sheet metal, shattering glass, and the shrieking of steel wheels on rails. “There was no screaming,” remembered one passenger, “There was a kind of stunned silence.” Hundreds of bloodied passengers stumbled out of the wrecked trains. No one was killed, but 400 people were hurt, some with broken bones and abdominal injuries. The city’s emergency services sprung into action, setting up a first aid center at the nearby Avery T. Harrington Public School at 53rd and Baltimore Avenue. About 80 police cars and ambulances swiftly transferred everyone in need of medical attention to nearby hospitals.
“By midday, hours after the accident,” The New York Times reported, “workmen with hand tools were tearing up gouged ties, cranes mounted on flatbed cars were hooking into crumpled stainless steel cars, and the police were barring spectators from the scene. Inside the cars where 1,200 people had been on their way to town, bloodied handkerchiefs and sections of the morning paper were strewn about.”
525 passengers were injured in the accident, and one crewmember died six days later. Equipment damage totaled nearly $2 million.
In its final report on the disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the negligence of the engineer of the oncoming train:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the engineer of train No. 1718 operating at a speed above that authorized by the block signal indication which did not allow for his stopping the train before it collided with a standing train. Contributing to the accident was the engineer’s improper operation of the train brakes and the failure of a supervisor and train crew personnel in the operating compartment of the locomotive to monitor the train’s operation adequately and to take action to insure that the train’s speed was reduced or that it was stopped when its speed exceeded that authorized for the signal block.
Five years after the collision at 53rd and Baltimore Conrail divested itself of Philadelphia’s commuter rail lines handed the remnants of the once-mighty PRR and Reading lines over to the newly created Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Service to West Chester terminated in 1986.
Railroad Accident Report: Collision of Conrail Commuter Trains, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 16, 1979 (Report). Washington, D.C.: National Transportation Safety Board. May 12, 1980. NTSB-RAR-80-5.
Bradley Peniston, “A Short History of a Short Street,” Hidden City Philadelphia, February 27, 2013.
Alan Richman, “More Than 400 Hurt in 3-Train Crash in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, October 17, 1979.l