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The Worst Rail Accident Ever
Modane, France (1917)

The Worst Rail Accident Ever
Text-only version

Photo: Rex Features
The wreckage of the troop train after the accident at Modane shows the scale of the destruction
Click to enlarge this image
Modane, 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.

In two world wars, railways have played an important role in the movement of troops and equipment. Traffic would often exceed peacetime levels and military needs often took precedence over the railways' usual traffic. Wartime conditions created other challenges for the railway companies. Men and materials were in short supply, having been diverted to the fighting. This could result in locomotive maintenance and building programmes being curtailed resultng in equipment shortages or continuing in use beyond its normal servicable life. Such were the stresses that were endured in locomotive operating departments across Europe.

Rail Accidents in Wartime
Railway accidents in time of war seem to have a scale and a poignancy of their own.
Genthin, Germany (1939)
An express taking people home to visit relatives at Christmas during World War 2 crashed into the rear of another train.
Shohola PA, USA
The American Civil War saw the first war-time use of railways. The war between the states was the setting for this tragedy which killed many Confederate prisoners of war who were in transit to the prison camp at Elmira.
Quintinshill near Gretna Green (1915)*
This accident during World War 1 decimated a regiment of soldiers on their way to fight on the front. Gallery
Soham (1944)
A munitions train exploded in East Anglia completely destroying the train and many surrounding buildings. The cause was a hot axlebox on one of the wagons.
*This accident will be the subject of a future Danger Ahead! article.
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 which 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 driver would have known that the task that his engine was expected to undetake was foolhardy if not dangerous. Although the capacity of the loco to pull the train would be severely stretched, more importantly its ability to stop would be limited. The driver protested this position, refusing to drive the train. Under normal conditions he would be perfectly within his rights. However, these were not normal times. This was war and although a civilian, he was threatened with military discipline by the army if he refused to cooperate.

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.

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Copyright David Fry 1998
This file last updated: Wednesday, 19-May-1999 18:40:03 EDT