Modane, France (1917)
SummaryModane, 12 December 1917 A troop train carrying 1000 soldiers home on leave ran out of control down a steep gradient. Although the immediate cause of the accident accident was excessive speed, this was due to inappropriate loading on the locomotive and the military mind which decreed that a dangerous train should run, even in the face of expert advice.
A consequence of the problems faced in the day-to-day operation of the railways was that heavier than normal trains might be run with motive power, that in peacetime would be considered to be insufficient for the loads involved.
This was the underlying cause of the accident at Modane wich claimed the lives of an estimated 800 French troops.
On 12 December 1917 approximately 1000 troops were returning home on leave from the fighting in North East Italy. They were being conveyed in two trains from Turin to Lyon. Due to the prevailing conditions, there was a shortage of locomotives. Indeed, only one was available. The decision was made to operate the two trains as one, coupling them together and putting them in the charge of a single 4-6-0 engine. The train now consisted of nineteen coaches. Of these, the first three had brakes (automatic air brakes controlled from the engine), the remaining coaches were either unbraked or had hand brakes operated by brakesmen. The weight of the train vastly exceeded that which the engine was permitted to haul. Normally, it should only have been allowed to pull trains of about one quarter of the weight of this troop train.
The main line between Turin and Lyon crosses the Alps through the Mont Cern tunnel emerging on the French side at Modane station. From here, it descends into the valley in a series of gradients as steep as 1 in 33. As the troop train began the descent, the driver applied the brakes. But, the limited braking power could not hold the weight of the train. It steadily gathered speed as it continued its descent. The brakes became overheated and glowed white causing fires to break out under the coaches. The train continued like this for some 4 miles (6 km/h) until at an estimated 75 mph (120 km/h) the first coach became derailed. The rest of the train piled-up against it, the wooden coaches immediately catching fire. They burned with such intensity that of the 800 or so who died, only 425 bodies could be identified.
This is an accident that should never have happened. Indeed in normal conditions it would not have. The railway company's officials would never have permitted such crass disobedience of their regulations.
Copyright © David Fry 1998
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