The Gare de Lyon is one of Paris’ three main passenger stations, located in the 12th Arrondissement in the east of the French capital, 129km/80mi west-southwest of Reims and 19km/12mi east of Versailles (both measurements in linear distance).
Opening in 1894 the Gare de Lyon is a two-level terminus station, meaning trains roll into dead-end tracks and have to reverse out. As of 2021 it holds 16 platforms and handles approximately 150 million passengers per year, serving everything from the Paris Metro to international TGV high speed trains. In 1988 the regional trains used the lower level (“basement”) of the station, utilizing 4 tracks accessed by navigating a downhill grade of 43‰/4.3%, equal to a drop of 4.3m/14ft over 100m/328ft of track.
The trains involved
Parked at track 2 of the underground station was regional train number 153951 scheduled to head to Melun in the north of France. It consisted of a Z5300 electric multiple unit consisting of a motor car and three unpowered trailing cars. Introduced in 1965 these trains measure 103.6m/340ft in length (although a shorter three-part configuration exists also) at 151 metric tons empty and can seat 398 people in a two-class configuration. Capable of 120kph/75mph the trains have two brake-systems, a standard pneumatic brake as well as an electric system (reversing the motors into generators). However, the latter was unpopular with drivers, as it could easily cause the wheels to stop spinning if used in combination with the pneumatic system, which led to flat spots that would require a trip to the maintenance facility to fix.
Regional train number 153944 was the opposite service, heading from Melun to Paris. On the day of the accident it was provided by a double-traction of four-part Z5300, coming in at a total weight of 302 metric tons. Shortly before the accident the SNCF (French national railway) had implemented a new summer timetable, shortening the travel-time between Melun and Paris by skipping low-popularity stops for service number 153951.
On the 27th of June 1988 at approximately 6:00pm regional train 153944 is approaching Paris-Gare de Lyon on its way from Melun into the capital. At 6:35pm the train rolls through Le Vert de Maisons, which used to be a stop on the line until the new timetable was introduced not long before the day of the accident. Seeing the platform pass outside the windows a passenger pulls the emergency brake, gets out of the stopped train and leaves the station before anyone can intervene. Trying to get the train going again as soon as possible the driver leaves his cab and goes to the back of the leading car, where he has to pull a lever to reset the brakes. Finding the lever stuck he grabs another handle nearby with his other hand for leverage, finally getting the brakes reset. Presumably in a rush to get going again he doesn’t notice that he moved the other handle in the process, operating the main valve and separating the brakes on the rear seven cars of the train from the motor car’s system.
Finding the brakes still applied on the rear seven cars the driver chose not to wait for a technician to come out and “fix” the supposed defect, instead he assumed that the emergency stop had led to excessive pressure in the system (something that happened on occasion) and that he just needed to manually bleed off air pressure. To do this he jogged from wheel set to wheel set on one side of the train, releasing the air pressure on each one, while the conductor did the same on the other side. However, with the main valve closed there was no way to refill the brake system, rendering the brakes on most of the train inoperable and released. In the meantime most passengers had chosen to reach their destination by other means and left the train. Running almost half an hour late the train finally departs again, with dispatch telling the driver to skip the last stop ahead of Gare de Lyon to catch up a few minutes of the delay. The next station, Maisons-Alfort, lies on level ground a few kilometers ahead of the ramp down into Gare de Lyon. Without the order to skip the stop the driver would’ve noticed the nearly-useless pneumatic brakes and could’ve brought the train to a stop just by letting it roll to a stop after cutting power. As it was, he was going to go right through the station not knowing anything was wrong.
At the same time regional train 153951 to Melun is sitting on track 2 at Gare de Lyon, the scheduled departure of 7:04pm had passed as the conductor had failed to show up. The leading car was positioned right at the main staircase leading down onto the platform, causing most passengers to find their seats in the forward car before “spilling over” into the rest of the train. Sitting in the driver’s cab of the train was Mister Tanguy, growing impatient as the scheduled departure moved further and further into the past.
On the inbound train the driver watched the manometer in his control cab which showed proper air pressure, not realizing that it only referred to air pressure in the leading car’s system. 1.5km/0.9mi outside Gare de Lyon the train passed a signal ordering him to “proceed at caution”, requiring him to slow down. The driver applied the trains and only now noticed that they barely worked, only getting the train from 96kph/60mph to 45kph/28mph before it reached the downhill track. Soon gravity won against the brakes on the leading car and the train accelerated. At 7:07:30pm the driver notified the control center at Gare de Lyon that he was travelling along with no working brakes, leading to the workers at the control center triggering a general alarm. A high-pitched alarm sounded in the driver’s cabs of all surrounding trains and all signals in a 10km/6.2mi radius went red, shutting down traffic in and out of one of France’s main train stations. Fatally, this also disabled the system that automatically directed trains into free tracks at Gare de Lyon, freezing the points as they were. This was meant to let control center employees have full control over the points and paths, but now it just placed Mister Tanguy’s train right in the path of a 151 metric ton stainless steel bullet. Adding to that the driver of the runaway train had failed to identify which train he was radioing from, and had also forgotten all about the electric brake system. Instead the driver, seeing his powerless situation, left the cab and urged passengers to move towards the back of the train. Even being completely made of steel he knew there was no way the train was going to survive the inevitable collision intact. Then again, this meant he was unreachable for the control center for further information.
In his cab Mister Tanguy had just seen his conductor finally board the train when the alarm started sounding, a moment later his signal turned red keeping him from departing the station. He didn’t know what was going on, and due to the radio system being used for the alarm he couldn’t ask the control center what had happened. Only less than a minute before the accident did the control center figure out which train the radio call had come from, and where it was headed. With the disaster doomed to happen they used the station’s intercom to order people to evacuate the underground platforms, hearing this Mister Tanguy also started broadcasting an evacuation-order to his passengers over the train’s loudspeakers. He chose to do this instead of abandoning the train himself, even as the other train came barrelling towards him.
At 7:09pm the runaway train number 153944 crashes into the stationary train head-on at over 70kph/44mph. The stationary train’s leading car is completely obliterated as the train is pushed back against the rear wall of the station, being compacted by 30m/98ft in the process. The tunnel, platform and dead-end left the trains nowhere to go off the tracks, worsening the damage inflicted. Only two people still aboard the stationary train survive, in total 56 people die while 57 are injured. While Mister Tanguy died in the collision his colleague on the other train survived, having moved towards the back along with his passengers.
The first professional responders reach the scene at 7:20pm, finding a number of civilians trying their best to help in a situation that overwhelms just about everyone involved. The passengers in the rear part of the runaway train get away with minor injuries, while survivors who remained aboard the stationary train largely suffer severe injuries with many needing to be cut free. Some only get to leave the wreckage by leaving limbs behind. No one knows what exactly happened, how two trains could collide in such a violent way. France had been dealing with a series of terrorist attacks in the months and years before the accident, including a bomb going off aboard a TGV high speed train in 1983 and one on another express train in 1982. With witnesses saying a woman pulled the emergency brake and then left the train people worried that she may have actually stopped the train so a conspirator at the station could manipulate the braking-system as people were distracted. This theory was supported by the investigators finding the main valve on the runaway train closed when they picked the wreckage apart. The driver recalled resetting the brakes after the emergency stop, but claimed to not have touched, much less operated the main valve. A few days after the accident a newspaper printed a full-page advertisement asking the person who triggered the stop to come forward, leading to a 21 years old single mother reporting to authorites admitting that she caused the stop. She’d used the train to pick up her children from a school near Le Vert de Maisons, and didn’t know that the stop was no longer scheduled. Worrying about leaving her children standing alone outside the school she pulled the brake and quickly headed to the school.
With no sign of purposeful manipulation found attention turned back to the driver’s actions. The handle to reset the brakes is located on the back of the leading car fairly far away from the edges, making it difficult to access. Re-enacting the act of releasing it, especially considering the stress of the schedule slipping away and the handle being hard to move due to not having been used in a while, it was decided that it’s possible that the driver reached for something to hold onto for leverage, not looking what exactly he grabbed. With the brakes still fully applied there was no way for the driver to tell excessive pressure from no pressure, with his train’s instruments only showing air pressure in the leading car’s system. However, manually releasing the air pressure in the rear 7 cars of the 8 car train and with that overriding a safety-system (no release of the brakes with the valve closed) was a clear violation of company protocol. The driver’s next error was to not include his train-number in the emergency call to the control center, which would’ve allowed the workers there to direct the near-empty runaway train into an empty track, leading to, at worst, a far less catastrophic collision with the buffer stop at the end of the platform. Lastly, he forgot all about the electric brake on his train, which could have reduced the train’s speed significantly ahead of the collision.
The control center workers had about two minutes between being alerted and the collision. Had they known the train the alarm had come from they could’ve set the points to direct it into an empty track, some people at the time even said they should’ve set the points to an empty track just in case the alarm came from an inbound train. Lastly, part of the blame was placed on the stationary train’s conductor, who’s failure to show up on time had led to the train, especially in its forward section, being unusually crowded.
After the accident the SNCF installed an emergency brake override system in their trains, pulling the handle no longer stops the train but only tells the driver that an emergency stop has been demanded by a passenger. Gare de Lyon’s basement station was repaired and fitted with special buffer stops capable of absorbing more energy than usual. The new buffer stops were tested by letting 4 series 2D2 9100 locomotives (weigthing 144 metric tons each) run into them at 30kph/18mph, a test they survived. Lastly the training of new drivers was improved and the radio system modernized. A memorial was installed at the site of the accident and an annual memorial service is held at the memorial.
The driver of the runaway train was initially sentenced to 4 years in jail for negligent manslaughter, with the conductor being sentenced to six months on probation while the passenger who had pulled the emergency brake received a fine, as did the control center worker who failed to direct the train into a free track. SNCF-employees went on strike after the sentence was announced, claiming their colleague was scapegoated for a system of outdated technology and excessively tight scheduling, a retrial reduced the jailtime for the driver to 6 months with the remaining time being turned into probation. The conductor was relieved of guilt in that second trial. In 1994 Mister Bresson, who had lost his son in the crash, founded FENVAC, a french support network for the victims of tragedies and catastrophes, aimed to help people like him deal with the aftermath.
In the early 2000s the SNCF started to retire the Z5300-trains, replacing them with the newer Z57000. The last trains headed to the scrapyard in December 2018, only a motor car and control car were preserved at the French Railway museum in Mulhouse.
The collision was the subject of episode 11 of the second season of National Geographic’s Seconds from Disaster, featuring original footage, reenactments and interviews with survivors and investigators.