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France's Worst Peacetime Railway Accident
Lagny-Pomponne - 1933
Lagny - 1933
Text-only version

Summary

Photo: Ullstein/Bilderdienst
Mountain No. 241.017 after the accident at Lagny-Pomponne. This locomotive was later repaired and returned to service. Forever afterwards it was known amongst the tractionairres as La Charcutiere (The Pork Butcher)
Click to enlarge this image
Lagny, France 23 December 1933. The Paris - Strasbourg Express 25 bis left Paris close behind the Paris - Nancy train which had been severely delayed due to the foggy conditions that prevailed that evening. Near Lagny, about 17 miles (23Km) from Paris, the Strasbourg express having overun signals, ploughed into the rear of the Nancy train. The resulting carnage was one of France's worst rail disasters.

Details

It was a cold and frosty evening on the Saturday before Christmas 1933 and there was a heavy fog around Paris. Traffic out of the Gare de l'Est was chaotic due to the weather as well as the special trains that were being run to cope with the extra passengers getting away and taking advantage of the prolonged break provided by Christmas day falling on the Monday. The Nancy train was two hours late departing and it encountered further delays due to several signal checks as it made its way through the congested Parisian suburbs. It was just starting away after yet another stop when the accident occurred.

The express bound for Strasbourg was being hauled by locomotive 241.017 (4-8-2) a Mountain engine and one of the largest locomotives on the French railway system. Signals had been set to protect the Nancy train. A combination of darkness, fog and signals that were only dimly lit by oil lamps made it difficult for drivers to spot which aspect was being displayed. Neither the tractionaire (driver) Daubigny nor his fireman Charpentier seem to have noticed that caution signals and a danger signal were set against them.

Failsafe AWS in Britain
Ray State

Where the system employed by the Cie. de l'Est had safety deficiencies, other railways had overcome such problems. In Britain both the contemporary Hudd and later BR AWS had fail safe systems for ensuring that "nothing received" was not possible. In the Hudd (GWR system) the ramp raised a plunger in the receiver and, if the signal was clear a current was passed. The raising of the ramp alone without the current gave a danger warning of a horn whilst the current cancelled this and gave a bell. Thus a fault with the ramp or receiver contact gave a right side failure of a horn even when the signal was clear. For the BR AWS this was achieved without contact by electro and permanent magnets. The permanent magnet which always preceded the electro magnet threw a switch in the receiver and if the signal was clear the electro magnet was energised and threw it back. The time delay system identified whether the signal received justified the horn or the bell. This system again minimised the "nothing received" events.
At this time a type of AWS (Advance Warning System) was in use which consisted of a wave shaped ramp, termed the "crocodile" placed between the rails at distant (warning) signals through which an electric current was passed. The polarity of the current was different depending on the indication of the signal. A brush beneath the locomotive made contact with with the "crocodile" and collected the current which was passed through polarised relays. A buzzer in the cab sounded if the signal was set against the train. This had to be acknowledged by the tractionaire by depressing a "vigilence knob" otherwise an application of the brakes would be made automatically. If the signal gave a clear indication, a bell sounded. Although the wave-shaping of the ramp was designed to ensure that current was collected, it can be seen that the system was not "failsafe" in the case of a "nothing received" event.

On this occasion just that appears to have occurred. Neither a buzzer, nor a bell sounded in the locomotive cab and Daubigny, relying on the audible signal indications drove his train on, through the danger signal, oblivious to the slower train ahead.

There was however one last line of defence. Fog signals (detonators) had been put down to protect the Nancy train. The driver of 241.017 maintained that no detonator explosions were heard. One witness reported that the detonators exploded as the last coach of the Strasbourg train passed over them. This seems most unlikely. It is however possible that the crew of 241.017 did not hear the detonators the explosions being so far in front of the cab of the huge locomotive that they were missed.

Now, there was nothing to prevent the inevitable smash. The 4-8-2 struck the rear of the Nancy train at some 60 mph (100kmh). The wooden construction of the Nancy coaches was no match for the combined energy of the mass of the locomotive and its speed. The impact demolished the 7 of these coaches, killing 230 passengers and injuring 300.

The accident was in open fields and in the darkness and the fog the rescuers had difficulty in locating the accident site. The local villagers lit bonfires to illuminate the scene. For several hours, while the rescue was in progress the driver and the fireman were made to stand by their locomotive as the dead and injured were carried past.

241-017 Mountain loco It was felt that a build-up of ice on the AWS ramp may have prevented correct operation of the equipment although it is hard to see that this would occur just for the Strasbourg train. Tractionaire Daubigny was prosecuted for manslaughter, but was acquitted. The railway company "Compagnie de Chemin de Fer de L'Est" was required to pay compensation to the victims in the amount of 43,856,000 Francs and 29 centimes! As a final touch of irony, the express train's lcocmotive was later repaired and returned to service and was promptly nicknamed by Paris enginemen La Charcutiere (The Pork Butcher)!!!

A Sting in the Tale
M. Phillipe _, Paris has also supplied details of another ironic twist associated with this disaster
The famous swindler Stavisky, about to be arrested by the french Police, attempded to disappear in this accident. He sent one of his accomplices to Lagny, in the night following the crash. This man had the mission to put Stavisky's official papers on an unidentifiable body... The police should believe Stavisky died in this accident. But at night, at Stavisky's home, his house wife met him, and his diabolic plan collapsed! Stavisky decided to commit suicide a few days later, but some still said that was not a suicide, but a crime. But this is another story!

Comment

The provision of "in-cab" warning systems are supplemental to the actual signal and are intended to aid drivers in recognising which aspect is displayed by a signal when adverse conditions prevail. It is perhaps human nature to come to rely on the system to provide the warning rather than to keep a lookout, particularly when the weather outside the cab is cold and sighting conditions are difficult. Such a scenario could lead a driver to "assume" that all was well until receiving a contrary indication via the AWS.

Acknowledgements
Grateful thanks to Ray State and Phillipe _, Paris, France for additional material for this item


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Copyright David Fry 1998
This file last updated: Wednesday, 19-May-1999 18:39:37 EDT