Split Second: The 2017 Millas (France) Level Crossing Collision

Max S
11 min readApr 9, 2023

Background

Millas is a municipality of 4261 people (as of 2020) in the far south of France, located in the Occitania region 14.5km/9mi west of Perpignan and 61km/38mi south of Narbonne (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Millas in Europe.

Millas lies on the rail line from Perpignan to Villefranche-de-Conflent, a mostly double-tracked partially electrified branch line opening in 1895. The line sees mostly regional passenger services and allows a 100kph/62mph top speed in the area around the site of the accident. The accident happened at a level crossing on a single-tracked section of the line, which is secured by half-width barriers, red lights and an acoustic warning if a train approaches. The road across the tracks (“Route de Thuir”, Coded D612) is paved and three lanes wide, with one lane per direction and a blocked lane in between securing space for adjacent turning-lanes as part of nearby intersections.

The site of the accident seen from above in 2015. The train approached from the east (right hand side of the image), the bus from the south (bottom of the image).

The vehicles involved

Travelling eastbound on the rail line was SNCF (French national railways) TER 877660, a regional service from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Perpignan. On the day of the accident the TER-connection (TER is the SNCF’s regional express service brand) was provided by SNCF Z7369. Introduced in 1980 the series Z7300 is a two-car electric multiple unit that seats 151 passengers in a two-class configuration. Each two-car unit measures 50.2m/164ft in length at a weight of 104 metric tons empty. They can reach up to 160kph/99mph and are part of a whole family of “Z2” multiple units made by Alstom in the early 1980s for the SNCF. The number of passengers that were on board is unknown, but at the time of the accident two people were in the cab. 40 years old Miss Vandeville, a trainee train driver who only started the job a few months prior, was in control of the train while Mister Madeira observed her behavior.

SNCF Z7367, a series Z7300 identical with the unit involved in the Crash, photographed in 2011. The 1 ahead of the number refers to the department for regional services.

Approaching the level crossing from the south at the time of the accident was a school bus carrying 23 students of a local secondary school on their way home. The service was provided by a chartered Karosa C 955, a two-axle intercity bus model introduced in 2001. The type measures 11.99m in length at a weight of 11.1 metric tons empty and can seat up to 51 passengers. On the day of the accident the bus was driven by Miss Oliveira, 46 years old, who had the job since April of the same year.

A Krosa C 955, similar to the one involved in the accident, photographed in 2010.

The accident

On the 14th of December SNCF Z7369 departs Millas station at 4:01pm, 9 minutes behind schedule. The train is under the control of trainee driver Miss Vandeville on her third trip on the line, with her coworker Mister Madeira riding along in the cab as an instructor and observer. The train is just accelerating through 70kph/43.5mph when Miss Vandeville sees the bright white bus move into the crossing a short distance up ahead. Vandeville sees the bus bend the barrier into the path of the train as it moves into the crossing, later recalling that each second seemed to take forever to pass. She sounds the train’s whistle as she triggers an emergency stop, getting ever closer to the bus which keeps inching into the crossing.

Vandeville keeps hoping the bus will either speed up or back up, somehow get out of the way. There is nothing more she or her instructor can do, the train’s brakes are fully applied, they’re are reduced to passengers aboard the train, which is about to suffer a horrific accident no matter what they do. Mister Madeira later recalls realizing the certainty of the collision, how they were going to hit the bus either way. He recalls the thought of “if it stops, we hit the middle. If it speeds up, the back, if it backs up, the front”. At the last moment Mister Madeira throws himself to the ground in the passage to the passenger compartment while Vandeville, hoping the bus is at least empty, remains in her seat, sounding the whistle non-stop.

The train strikes the bus on the right hand side at 4:03pm, almost perfectly in the middle, at 70kph/43.5mph. A deafening crash echoes across the fields as the train cuts the bus in two, sending both halves spinning away from the level crossing. It takes another few hundred meters for the train to come to a halt, it remains on the tracks despite the hard impact. Nobody on the train is hurt, but back at the crossing four people are dead and 20 are injured, all but the bus driver suffering severe injuries.

Aftermath

Miss Vandeville looks around as her train comes to a stop, spotting a cellphone sitting on the floor of the driver’s cab. It’s not hers, neither is it Mister Madeira’s. In the meantime witnesses to the accident call the emergency services, the first units arrive at the site by 4:15pm. Another 15 minutes later local authorities declare a catastrophic event. It is only when she hears the sirens and helicopters of the arriving emergency services that Vandeville starts to grasp the fact that she hit anything but an empty bus. The phone that appeared in the cab, she realizes, belonged to someone on the bus and got flung through the train’s windshield as the bus broke apart.

Over 150 responders are involved in the rescue effort, four helicopters take the worst-injured survivors to surrounding hospitals. One of the initial survivors dies at the hospital the following day, another one holds on until the 18th of December. By that point doctors are still fighting for five more survivors, who eventually pull through.

The wreckage of the bus sits next to the crossing after the accident.

All the victims were from Millas, the accident understandably shakes the small town to its core and people want answers. How did the accident happen, how did the bus end up in the path of a train at a crossing that is as well-secured as it could be. Neither the train drivers nor the bus driver test positive for alcohol or drugs, all 3 were also allowed to drive their respective vehicles and were within duty-time limits. Vandeville hadn’t been speeding, being well below the 100kph/62mph speed limit when she triggered the emergency stop, and investigators find out that the bus was travelling at no more than 12kph/7.5mph when the collision occured, so it wasn’t speeding either. A common cause for level crossing collisions, a driver trying to “jump the crossing” (speeding across the tracks ahead of the train to save time) is thus ruled out.

Miss Oliveira consistently claims the barriers were definitely up while witnesses both in a car on the other side of the tracks and a following school bus disagree on both the barriers and the lights and horn of the crossing. In the end 6 witnesses, both on and off the involved vehicles, insist the barriers were down, 23 claim they were up, and four recall them being “in motion”. Investigators find that the mechanism for the barrier the bus presumably hit was in the “down” position, contradicting most witness accounts. It is assumed that many of the witnesses who remember them being up, a lot of which were surviving passengers, recall them as being up because they can’t make sense of why the bus would have entered the crossing if they were down. Miss Oliveira becomes the target of a police investigation on the 20th of December, being placed under the suspicion of negligent manslaughter in multiple cases.

Firefighters work on the bus shortly after the accident.

Within days of the accident three parallel investigations are underway. The public prosecutor’s office is working to figure out legal consequences while the SNCF and French Investigative Bureau for traffic accidents (BEA-TT) are trying to figure out how the accident could have happened on the technical side.

The SNCF presents their findings in late December 2017. Both the train and the level crossing’s equipment were in perfect working order, the train crew did nothing wrong and the barriers were most certainly down when the bus entered the crossing. The train was delayed, but this had no effect on the ensuing events, as the level crossing doesn’t operate on a schedule but is activated by the approaching trains.

The results of a technological investigation are released to the public in October 2018, almost a year after the accident. They place blame for the accident on human error by Miss Oliveira as there was nothing wrong with the bus either. According to data logged by the bus ahead of the accident the bus was moving at 12kph/7.5mph before coming to a stop immediately before impact. At this time Miss Oliveira still, through a lawyer, insists that there was no lowered barrier. She has her lawyer explain how hard braking at the barrier, which the evaluation theorizes she may have seen late, at 12kph/7.5mph wouldn’t have seen the bus move halfway into the crossing. And since his client would never drive through a closed barrier, it must have been open no matter what the investigation found.

A photograph looking at the wreckage from the perspective of an approaching train.

Lastly, in mid-May 2019, the BEA-TT’s official report is released. It sees no other probable cause but human error by Miss Oliveira, but does find several factors that contributed to the cause of the accident. It notes that the route of the bus saw it turn from a smaller street into D612 just ahead of the crossing, having to navigate a turn in excess of 90° left. During this turn, the report explains, a driver of a vehicle with a turning-behavior such as the bus would be occupied with both the observation of oncoming traffic from both sides as well as by trying to thread the large vehicle between the sidewalk and two traffic islands. This could considerably reduce the attention paid to the level crossing.

The report lambasts a 2009 inspection of the crossing which found “No characteristics worth mentioning” within a “significant distance” of the crossing, when, in reality, intersections were present on either side of the crossing within 25m/82ft of the tracks. A reenactment of the bus’ path shows that, as the bus pulled into D612, a wooden pole may have hidden the red light of the crossing from the driver’s peripheral vision as the focus lay on avoiding the sidewalk and islands. By the time the bus straightens out on D612 a lowered barrier would have already been so close to the bus that it was in the driver’s blind spot, hidden behind the dashboard. Lastly, the weight of the bus ensured that the barrier presented insufficient resistance to slow the bus down, meaning the driver had no way of knowing they were going through the barrier once it was out of sight. The report also notes that Miss Oliveira passed the crossing up to six times per day, but in the 8 months of working for the company schedules had always lined up in a way that she never experienced having to wait at it. In conclusion, routine of crossing the tracks with the barriers up along with the non-ideal road-layout ahead of the level crossing aided in Miss Oliveira driving into the path of the oncoming train.

The intersection the bus took ahead of the level crossing, captured on Google StreetView in 2010. Note the 3 traffic islands which had to be avoided.

Miss Oliveira was put on trial in Marseille on the 19th of September 2022, with the trial being live-streamed to a community center at Perpignan, the next larger city near Millas. Oliveira still tearfully insisted that the barriers were up and there had been no lights or sounds, and that she never saw the train coming. She explained how she suffers since the accident, constantly seeing the moment of impact, the flying seats as the bus is ripped apart.

The investigators admitted that a number of witnesses agreed with the barriers being up, but not only did technical evidence show with certainty that they were down but there were also outside witnesses who recalled them as being down, such as a car driver who witnessed the accident after coming to a stop at the closed barriers on the other side of the tracks. The trial was interrupted on the 22nd of September 2022 when Oliveira collapsed in court and was rushed to hospital with a heart condition caused by excessive stress.

The trial was on hold for a few days before resuming, ending on the 18th of November with Oliveira being found guilty of negligent manslaughter in several cases. She was sentenced to 4 years in jail and a further year on house arrest, and was banned from working in public transportation for life.

The train sitting a short distance past the crossing after the accident.

After the accident the intersection south of the crossing was rebuilt in a modified shape, making the turn easier for buses and giving them more time to see the barriers and lights at the crossing. The acoustic warning, despite being found to be “drowned out by talking” inside a bus, remained at the same volume. The level crossing reopened for road traffic in August 2018, with rail traffic not resuming until late May 2020.

Miss Vandeville still works as a train driver today, but explained in a 2022 interview that the accident still deeply affects her. She explained that even slight delays are an issue to her, as the 9 minute delay her train had on the day of the accident meant it didn’t pass the crossing well ahead of the bus. She also recalled that, since the accident, celebrating christmas with her two children was “never quite the same”. She knows she carried no blame in the accident, but the powerlessness of having to watch the fatal accident occur still burdens her.

The modified intersection captured on StreetView in 2022.

A memorial was unveiled to the west of the site in 2019, with a small cleared area holding benches and a gray stone pillar, which has a heart-shaped cutout at the top and lists the names of the six students who died in the accident.

The memorial set up at the site, photographed at the fifth anniversary of the tragedy. The camera is facing southwest, away from the rail line.

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A kind reader has started posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.