Commanded Catastrophe: The 1917 Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne (France) Derailment

Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne is a municipality of 2467 people (as of 2019, the oldest number is 3958 for 1962) in southeastern France, located 114km/71mi south of Geneva (Switzerland) and 60.5km/37.5mi east of Grenoble (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne in Europe.

The municipality lies on the “Ligne de la Maurienne” (“Maurienne-Line”, also called the Culoz-Modane Railway), a 135km/84mi double-tracked electrified main line opening in sections between 1856 and 1871, with Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne being reached by 1862. The line connects the Lyon-Geneva-line with the Italian border at Modane, making it one of the main corridors for passenger and freight trains between Italy and France. Nowadays trains reach as much as 150kph/93mph on the line. The section between Modane and Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne runs steeply downhill in the east-to-west direction, reaching a decline of as much as 30 ‰/3% as it runs through several turns with radii as tight as 350m/1150ft.

The site of the accident seen from above today, the train came from the right. Note that the accident predates the roads you see in the photo by several years.

M612 was a military train carrying French soldiers on their way home from the front for the Christmas holidays. Almost all the passengers had come from the Italian front. The plan was set in motion to improve morale in the wake of widespread mutinies the French army had faced in Summer 1917. The train had originated at Vicenza in Italy and was headed for Chambéry in France. By the time the train was ready to depart Modane station it consisted of a baggage car, 15 four-axle passenger cars, another baggage car and 2 fixed-axle passenger cars with two axles each. All train cars were constructed with a wooden body on a steel frame. Official records claim 982 passengers, along with 7 brakemen. Only the leading 3 train cars had pneumatic brakes, while the other cars either had hand-operated brakes or none at all. The brakemen were tasked to operate the latter on whistle-commands from the locomotive. Running a train with only partial brakes was standard procedure for freight trains, which is what M612 was classed as. The electric lighting in several of the passenger cars was out of order, leading to the soldiers being given candles to compensate a little bit. Note that some sources claim that all train cars had brakes, but that some were disabled as there weren’t enough brakemen available to operate them all.

The train had been assembled from 2 trains coming up from Italy as only one locomotive was available for the remainder of the trip due to wartime shortages, the second locomotive being required for an eastbound ammunition-transport. This left a single locomotive on the massive train, PLM (Paris-Lyon Railway) Type 230 number 2592. The Type 230 was a five-axle steam-locomotive for passenger trains introduced in 1910, measuring 12.14m/40ft at a service-ready weight of 73.4 metric tons. The locomotive had two leading and 3 driven axles as well as a pulled three-axle tender and could reach an impressive 110kph/68mph.

A PLM Type 230 identical to the one involved, photographed without its tender.

After the train was assembled at Modane station it had to wait in a siding to let several higher-priority trains pass. One of these was the Modane-Paris express, leading to most officers leaving M216 to complete their journey on the Express. Seeing the other locomotive being turned around to head back east led to the driver of M216 refusing to board his locomotive, pointing out how the train was overloaded for its braking-power, especially with the upcoming steep descend in mind. However, the transport officer in charge of dispatches at Modane ordered him to return to the driver’s cab or face a military trial for insubordination. As such, the train left Modane station at 11:15pm on the 12th of December 1917, being essentially doomed to derail at some point on the downhill journey.

With the driver doing his best to use the brakes to their maximum without burning them up he managed to maintain control on the first descend, reaching Freney at a controlled 10kph/6.2mph. However, as the decline steepened past the town the train ran increasingly out of control, reaching as much as 135kph/84mph as it sped into the valley. The driver still fought with the locomotive in a hopeless attempt to slow down by the time the train approached Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne.

The site of the accident photographed in 2017, facing east.

Entering a left hand turn in a cut in the mountain the leading baggage-car derailed at 102kph/63mph in a zone with a speed limit of 40kph/25mph. It fell over and turned 90° sideways as the couplers tore off on both ends, just 1300m/0.8mi outside Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne’s station. The following cars smashed into the obstacle one by one as the resistance from the ground slowed the overturned baggage car, obliterating many of the train cars past recognition. The wooden debris was ignited by the glowing hot brakes and the candles the soldiers were given for light, causing the wreckage to catch fire before it had even come to a stop. Several soldiers had also smuggled grenades and ammunition aboard, causing several explosions and gunfire (of sorts).

The train driver finally brought the locomotive to a stop at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne station, only now realizing that the entire train (except for the locomotive’s tender) was missing. He was injured, but behind him at least 700 soldiers had died in the crash and ensuing inferno (other sources claim 675 victims). The exact number is unknown as the fire left many victims unrecognizable, as well as the military at the time being interested in downplaying the incident (sources at the time claimed 425 victims). Furthermore, it is possible that a significant amount of soldiers were on the train without permission, pushing the possible death-toll higher.

Responders examining the wreckage the morning after the accident.

Most of the wreckage comes to a rest between a rock wall and a retaining wall, acting like an oven for the fire. The train driver found 2 divisions of British soldiers at the station and went back up the line hoping to be able to rescue survivors, unaware how bad the situation had gotten until he arrived at the site. The British soldiers were only there because the station manager at La Praz had seen the French train race past and notified his colleague at Saint Jean de Maurienne that he was to hold out on dispatching the eastbound British train, avoiding a catastrophic head-on collision that could’ve raised the death-toll even more. 14 train cars were completely destroyed in the accident, while the rear two cars came to a halt almost undamaged.

The towering wreckage makes access to most survivors near-impossible from the valley side, leaving essentially only one point of access/escape for most survivors and for the responders. Survivors are taken to a local hospital and a nearby pasta-factory which is turned into both a makeshift hospital and morgue. Around 600 victims are pulled from the wreckage as the firefighting progresses, another 37 dead soldiers are found along the rail line uphill of the site. It is generally assumed that those soldiers either chose to bail from the train or were ejected during the derailment. The next morning only 183 men who were on the train reported to their superiors, over 100 initial survivors die in hospital or en-route to ones over the following two weeks. This likely leads to the wide range of reported victims today, ranging from 675 to 800. It takes until the evening of the day after the accident for the fire to finally be out, leaving little of the car-bodies and a lot of the victims. Over 100 victims are never identified, being buried in a communal grave next to the local cemetery.

A crane tries to pull the wreckage apart during recovery.

The accident is immediately classified as a military secret and remains that way for 90 years. The French press is ordered to remain silent on the matter, the largest publication at the time is a 21-line note in “Le Figaro” 4 days after the accident. Six employees of the PLM, including the surviving train driver, face a military trial over the accident, but all are acquitted. 6 years after the accident the French Minster of Defense inaugurates a memorial to the victims at Saint Michel de Maurienne’s cemetery, in 1961 the remains are exhumed and transferred to the national military cemetery at Lyon. By 1998, at last, a monument is unveiled near the site of the accident. It lists the old claim of 425 victims, a number generally agreed to wildly undercut the actual death toll.

The public memorial at La Saussaz, near the site of the accident.

The accident is generally considered the worst railway accident in history by death-toll, only being surpassed by a derailment that happened when a train was derailed and submerged during the 2004 Tsunami at Sri Lanka with a claimed death-toll of at least 900. However, the argument can be made that those two events cannot be compared as the latter was a natural disaster.

The gross negligence that led to the derailment and fire at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne no longer takes place nowadays, with military trains being treated like regular passenger services and being closely monitored. Furthermore, railways no longer use manual brakes for operational deceleration, instead modern train cars have pneumatic lines throughout the train for braking, eliminating the job of a brakeman. Lastly, aside from historic trains on special tours, wooden train car bodies are a thing of the past.

The official memorial-service on the 100th anniversary in 2017.


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