Whenever a train approached Bridgeport’s “Jenkins Curve,” the sharpest curve of the New Haven Railroad system, safety regulations required the engineer to slow down to 30 mph. At 3:42 in the morning of July 14, 1955, however, the driver of New Haven Railroad’s express train 172, from New York City to Boston, inexplicably continued at full speed into the curve despite the signal to apply the brakes. Predictably, the locomotive jumped the tracks, derailing 15 cars and plunging itself and seven cars down a steep embankment to the railroad yard below. The engineer paid fully for his mistake, dying at the scene. Miraculously, though, despite many serious injuries, none of the 175 passengers died
Routine inspections had shown nothing amiss with the train immediately prior to its departure from Gotham’s Pennsylvania Station at 2:33 a.m. Known as “The Federal,” train 172 consisted of New Haven Railroad’s electric locomotive 363 with six coach cars, nine sleeping cars, and both a baggage and a refrigerated car. The train followed its prescribed route along Connecticut’s shoreline, passing signal towers and railroad stations at what was perceived as its regular speed of between 60 and 75 mph.
After failing to slow down for the Jenkins Curve, – named for the Jenkins Valve Company, whose building was adjacent to the tracks – the train immediately derailed. The locomotive and seven of the cars sailed through the air for 900 feet then tumbled down a 30-foot embankment, pulling down the electric lines that powered the electric engines. This sparked multiple fires, tore up the tracks, and the crashing train slammed into a a diesel-electric unit and other equipment in the yard. The locomotive and many of the cars jack-knifed and stopped on their sides as crewmen fought their way out of the cars and began assisting passengers in escaping the wreckage. More than 50 passengers and crewmen were injured, many seriously.
At an inquiry six days later, many crewmen, as well as the tower operators and stationmasters on duty the morning of the derailment, testified there was no discernable reason for the accident. The weather was clear, there had been no rain or obstructions on the tracks, and all inspections of the locomotive, including the brakes, had shown nothing out of order. Every witness who had seen him also testified that prior to the accident the 62-year-old engineer, Arthur Orteneau, had appeared in good health and of sound mind.
The locomotive fireman, George Kennedy, who sat in the front cab with the engineer, provided the only clue as to what might have caused the accident. Kennedy noted this immediately before the crash:
“I kept watching ahead and we got somewhere past the signal, the automatic signal and I did not feel the train slow up or I didn’t hear the air brakes go on and I thought they should have. So I looked over there at Mr. Ortenaeu and he was sitting down and had a cigar in his mouth. It looked like he was looking down at the speedometer which he does quite often. In my estimation he was a good engineer, scientific engineer if I could use the word. He went by the speedometer, weather conditions and everything. Like I say he was looking at the speedometer, I assume he was, which was not unusual. I waited momentarily and he still had not applied the brake. I called, “Art,” “Art” or “Hey Art,” something like that, and with that he reached over and put the brake on. The next thing I do remember [is] leaving the rail. I remember a rumble and the next thing I remember I am down in the nose, my hands up over my head, bouncing around, and I heard a terrific rumble. When everything stopped moving I groped my way around and crawled out…”
In its final report on the accident, the Interstate Commerce Commission determined that its cause was excessive speed, but the underlying reason the train was going that fast died with Arthur Orteneau.
Interstate Commerce Commission. Report no. 3642, “The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company in re Accident at Bridgeport, Conn., on July 14, 1955,” Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries
“Bridgeport, Connecticut Federal Express Train Derailment,” Old School Fire Photos
“The Federal Express,” wikipedia.com