Something Fishy: The 2013 Brétigny-sur-Orge (France) Train Derailment

Brétigny-sur-Orge is a municipality of 27412 people (as of 2019) in northern France, located in the Île-de-France region 35km/22mi east of Rambouillet and 28.5km/18mi south of Paris (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Brétigny-sur-Orge in Europe.

The municipality has a station on the Paris-Bordeaux rail line, a 584km double-tracked electrified main line opening in sections between 1840 and 1853. It has always been one of France’s main railway corridors, justifying a partial expansion to four tracks in 1910. Nowadays trains can travel at up to 220kph/137mph on the line, which is used mostly by passenger services, seeing everything from suburban commuter trains to high speed TGV services.

The site of the accident seen from above today, the train came from the north (top of the image).

Intercity 3657 was an express passenger service from Paris to Limoges provided by the SNCF (French national railway). On the day of the accident it consisted of seven Corail passenger cars, a four-axle express passenger train car introduced into service between 1975 and 1984. Each Corail-car measures 26.4m/86.6ft in length at an empty weight of 42 metric tons. Full passenger cars can seat up to 88 passengers while buffet cars offer 44 seats. The Conrail-cars are fully air conditioned and allowed to travel at up to 200kph/124mph. At the time of the accident the train carried 385 passengers.

A second class Corail-car identical with those making up most of the train involved.

Pulling the train on the day of the accident was SNCF 126005, a series BB 26000. Introduced in 1988 the BB 26000 is a four-axle multi-system electric locomotive developed for both freight trains and passenger services. Each BB 26000 measures 17.71m/58.1ft in length at a service-ready weight of 88.8 metric tons. Each motor drives both axles on one of the two bogies, allowing a top speed of 200kph/124mph thanks to a total power output of 5600kW/7510hp.

SNCF 126005, photographed at the site the day after the accident.

On the 12th of July 2013 IC 3657 pulls out of Paris-Austerlitz station at 4:53pm, planning to stop next at Limoges-Bénédictins at 7:54 according to the schedule. 385 passengers use the late afternoon service out of the French capital. After leaving Paris behind the train quickly picks up speed, approaching Brétigny-sur-Orge at 137kph/85mph (according to the data-logger, recorded at 5:10pm) under a 150kph/93mph speed limit. Dispatch has set a path that will take the train straight through Brétigny-sur-Orge’s station on track 1 without stopping. Something to note going forward is the odd numbering-scheme of tracks at the station, with the 4 connected tracks of the station being numbered 4, 2, 1, 3 from west to east, followed by a siding on the station-side. Track 1 shares a roofed platform with track 2. Contrary to most European railways the rail line is navigated in left hand traffic, similar to how road-traffic is arranged in the UK. As such, southbound trains used the eastern tracks.

A simplified graphic showing the layout at the station, IC 3657 approached from the left (north).

At 5:13pm IC 3657 passed over a double-set of points connecting tracks 3, 1 and 2, still travelling at 137kph/85mph. The fourth car in the train suddenly derails approximately 200m/656ft ahead of the platforms. The shift to the right pulls the following car off the tracks too, tearing the coupler between cars 4 and 5. The fifth car pulls the remaining two cars along just as the ruptured pneumatic lines activate the brakes throughout the train. Car 4 falls over as it derails, getting dragged along track 2 and the western platform, coming to a stop with the forward part of the train a short distance past the platforms. Car 7 gets deflected off the tracks to the left, running along track 3 with car 6 stretched diagonally between the tracks. It falls over as it hits the beginning of the platform, mowing down everything in its path for around 100m/330ft before slamming roof-first into a support of the platform roof, breaking open and finally coming to a halt. The train driver notices what’s going on before the train even comes to a stop, triggering an alarm that stops any surrounding train just in time as an oncoming train comes to a halt only a few feet from the wreckage. Behind him, seven people have died and over 400 are injured both on the platform and aboard the train.

Car 6 and 7 sitting in the wreckage, you can see some remains of the platform’s furniture on the right.

The situation on the platforms in the moments following the accident is an unimaginable horror, the platforms had been unusually crowded due to high traffic ahead of the Bastille Day Holiday Weekend, which became fatal when the train car came heading for the waiting travelers with few options for escape as pieces of train were heading down the tracks on either side. The first medical responders are on site within minutes, trying to sort through the chaotic scene and figure out whom to help first, who is okay and for whom any help is too late. Unbelievably, the responders soon find themselves under attack by onlookers throwing rocks and bottles for unknown reasons, with the arriving police receiving the same treatment. Some sources also claim that personal belongings of victims and survivors were stolen in the minutes after the accident, with thieves making use of the chaotic conditions.

Cars 6 and 7 sitting on the remains of the eastern platform.

4 people lose their life as the heavy train car literally shaves the platform, another 3 die aboard the derailing train. Within a short time the French Transportation Accident Investigation Bureau (BEA-TT), the Ministry of Transport, the SNCF and the local public prosecutor all launch investigations into the cause of what became France’s worst railway accident since the 1988 Gare de Lyon crash which claimed 56 lives. Investigators closely examine the train, especially the locomotive which ended up a few hundred meters past the station completely undamaged. At the same time the driver is questioned and tested for drugs and alcohol. But the train doesn’t show any sign of a defect, and the behavior of the driver gives no reason for any blame either. Instead, the driver’s quick thinking is praised as he locked down the station’s tracks before his train even came to a halt. The alarm triggered an automatic stop of the oncoming passenger train, stopping it just before it would have crashed into the wreckage on track 2 at speed as it was also meant to pass through the station at high speed.

IC 3657’s locomotive on the left, with the oncoming train, stopped autonomously by the alarm, on the right. A few moments later it would have run into cars 4, 5 and 6 which had ended up on track 2.

A few collision-marks on a wheel of car 3 cue the investigators in on the actual cause of the accident, sending them north as they retrace the train’s final moments. They find what they were looking for at the double-points ahead of the station, where an offshoot from track 3 merges into track 1 at the same time as another track shoots off to connect track 1 to track 2, creating an X-shaped pair of points. The connection between the approaching track 1 and the points has failed and shifted the rails out of alignment. Investigators find that the fishplate, a metal plate used to bolt pieces of track together, has come apart, with one of the plates having fallen off while the other has become lodged between the points’ movable tongue and the fixed rail.

An intact fishplate, a plate like this is installed on either side of each rail with bolts connecting the plates through the rail itself.

Marks on the train’s wheels and the points indicate that the bolts had either broken or come lose, allowing the plate to slightly separate from the rail. The last axle of car 3 then struck the plate, ripping it off the rail and lodging one of the plates in the points. The disconnected rails couldn’t withstand the forces of the plate being forced between them and the center of the points like a wedge, pushing them out of alignment just in time to derail car 4, setting the final part of the tragedy in motion.

A (translated) photo from the report, showing the misaligned rails that caused the derailment.

The public prosecutor’s office announced on the 24th of July 2013 that they were investigating under charges of manslaughter and negligent cause of bodily harm. A report my independent experts found that the points were in an unprecedented state of disrepair, comparable to abandonment, which allowed the fishplate to fail from the weight of the train going over it. The report claims that the SNCF was aware of the inadequate condition of their infrastructure but failed to act accordingly. These claims were protested by the federal infrastructure-bureau RFF, which didn’t keep them from ordering a close inspection of around 5000 points of the same type installed all over France.

The northern end of the eastern platform, buried under train cars and debris.

The investigation was made considerably more difficult by slow cooperation on the side of the SNCF, leading to a judge ordering an executive member of the SNCF’s legal department to be wire-tapped on eight different occasions. When the trial finally started against him in 2015, the sixth day of the trial mainly consisted of the courtroom hearing around 2 hours from the recorded phonecalls where he talked about slowing the investigation as much as they can, “handing them [investigators] nothing on a platter” and “shoving any maintenance-guidelines and recordings to the back of the deepest closet”. This went completely against the defendant’s claim of having done his best to help the investigation as investigation-hours are paid by the taxpayer, claiming to have been “fully transparent” with law enforcement. The findings from the wiretapping also cast doubt on another executive’s laptop supposedly being stolen, but as far as published information goes no purposeful manipulation could be proven in that case.

Car 4 on it’s side past the platforms (right)

The remaining trials finally got underway in April 2022, seeing several individuals along with the SNCF as a whole charged with negligent homicide and negligent cause of manslaughter in several cases each. As of this post being written (June 2022) the trial is ongoing. Mister Pepy, the acting president of the SNCF, has stated that the SNCF considers itself responsible for the lives of its passengers and the people near their tracks, promising improvements to maintenance-schedules and guidelines to avoid a repeat of the accident. The accident, as horrific as it was, could have gone even worse. One only has to try and imagine rails getting misaligned as a TGV passes over them at twice the Intercity’s speed. The points helped pushing the rails out of alignment in this case, but a track-separation could cause a derailment without that factor just as well.

Workers preparing the removal of the train cars at the destroyed platform.

Nothing at the site of the accident points to what happened, once the damage was repaired operations at the station returned to normal. Most of the train cars were written off while the locomotive returned to service. Nowadays the BB 2600 is on its way out, with retirements having started in 2014, mostly hitting those in freight services. By January 2021 about 160 of the 234 locomotives built were still in service. Corail-cars are still a vital part of French passenger trains, even if the growing number of multiple units in French service will see demand for the cars dwindle in the coming years.

An Intercity-train nearly identical to the one involved photographed in September 2021.
An English-language news clip showing footage of the recovery-operation.

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