THAT One: The 1895 Paris-Montparnasse (France) Train Derailment

Max S
9 min readJan 7, 2024

Please Note: Background-information is a bit less detailed than usual, but I decided that this famous accident deserved covering regardless.

Background

The Gare Montparnasse is one of Paris’ six largest passenger stations, located in the 15th “Arrondissement” (district) in the southwest of the French capital, 132km/82mi west of Reims and 13km/8mi northeast of Versailles (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Paris-Montparnasse in Europe.

Gare Montparnasse opened in 1840 as a terminus station before being largely rebuilt just 12 years later. It serves as the eastern end on the Paris–Brest rail line, a 622km/386mi double-tracked rail line connecting the French capital with the town of Brest on the Atlantic coast. Trains entered the station 10m/33ft above street level, keeping them separated from other traffic. Being a terminus-station meant that all tracks ended at a buffer stop, requiring trains to reverse out of the station to leave. The buffer stops were followed by a 30m/98ft wide concourse-area where travelers moved from platform to platform and could purchase things from small shops and kiosks. The street-level outside the rear end of the station held a wide sidewalk and a streetcar station, which at the time of the accident was operated by horse-drawn trains. There was also a newspaper-stand operated by the Aguilard-family positioned up against the station’s ground floor rear wall.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The station was moved in the mid-1900s.

The Train Involved

The train serving the express connection number 56 from Granville to Paris on the 22nd of October 1895 consisted of three luggage cars, a mail car and ten passenger cars pulled by Series 120 locomotive number 721. The Series 120 rode on two driven axles and a leading axle, pulling a separate tender with the coal supply. The Series 120 was built in the second half of the 1800s in a variety of versions, each differing by minor details (open/closed cab, different whistles, different smokestack, etc). Number 721 was built in 1877 and featured a slightly larger boiler and bigger wheelbase between the driven axles than its predecessors. 36 units of the version were made. The size of the locomotive is unknown, but it’s listed at weighing 50 metric tons and was able to travel faster than 65kph/40mph.

Series 120 number 393 photographed at the factory in 1869. Photos of the type are scarce and this locomotive is near-identical to the one involved in the accident.

The Accident

Train #56 departs Granville on the 22nd of October 1895 at 8:45am, heading for Paris Montparnasse. It’s under the command of Mister Pellerin, assisted by the fireman Mister Garnier (a fireman is the person primarily responsible for steadily supplying coal/material to the fire heating the locomotive’s boiler). The heavy train covers an uneventful journey and eventually departs Versailles-Chantiers station, situated to the immediate southwest of Paris, at approximately 3:40pm with 131 passengers, running 7 minutes behind schedule. Mister Pellerin drives as fast as he deems acceptable to try and cut down on the delay, approaching Paris-Montparnasse station at an estimated 45kph/28mph with the intention to brake late and hard when he nears the station.

The layout of Montparnasse station in 1895, with the train’s path sketched in. Note that “North” is to the left.

The Aiguillard-family runs a newspaper stand at the station, located just outside the building on the northern side, mostly selling to pedestrians and people using the streetcars. Mister Aiguillard had just handed the stand over to his wife at approximately 3:50pm as he went to pick up the evening newspapers (back then some newspapers published more than once per day) from a nearby distributor. Train #56 is nearing the station at the same time, with Mister Pellerin applying full brakes only to find that the pneumatic brake system fails to have any effect on the speed at all. The physical locomotive brake, functioning by pressing a brake shoe onto the wheels, is wildly inadequate to slow the train down in time on its own.

Mister Pellerin and his colleague, seeing the far end of the station rapidly come closer, jump off the train, landing on the platform just before the train reaches the end of the tracks at approximately 40kph/25mph. The locomotive pulverizes the wooden buffer stop, carves a path through 30m/98ft of tile-floored concourse, obliterates a kiosk (who’s owner got out of the way in time as they saw the train coming) and smashes through the 1.25m/4ft thick stone wall at the end of the station.

The locomotive, drastically slowed by the repeated impacts, falls off the end of the station, burying its leading end in the pavement down below as debris showers the sidewalk. It’s back end ends up leaned against the station wall, pinning the tender, which is held in place by the luggage car it’s still coupled, to against the wall. The noise of the crashing train scared the streetcars’ horses away and the locomotive happened to clear the Aguilard’s newspaper stand, but Miss Aguilard is fatally struck by falling stones, becoming the accident’s sole victim. The station’s clocks stop as the train crashed through the end wall, it’s exactly 4:00pm.

Aftermath

A few passengers are registered with minor bruises, and the locomotive crew survives their tumble on the platform with minor injuries as well. The handbrake of the kitchen car along with the resistance of the derailed cars hold the train in place after the accident, while the locomotive was relatively safely stuck in place, pinning the tender to the wall which also keeps it at too steep an angle to slide down the wall. The noise still attracted a lot of attention, drawing locals to the odd sight. The local police reacted by sending more and more men for crowd control, records show a total of 120 officers tried to keep “well over 1000” civilians clear of the wreckage by 5:30pm. Countless locals also purchased train tickets with no intention of travelling, just to get around the police barriers by walking onto the platforms and gawk at the sight from there.

The locomotive crew is detained and is interrogated immediately after the accident, claiming that the pneumatic brake failed to apply after working flawlessly at the prior station and ahead of a nearby level crossing. Mister Garnier claims that he tried to improve deceleration by reversing the steam-valves (meaning the cylinders now tried to slow the connecting rods driving the wheels, rather than accelerating them) and by “sanding”, a practice that sees sand piped onto the rails in front of the wheels to increase grip. This was done a few hundred meters outside the station while the train was travelling at 65kph/40mph. However, engineers examining the locomotive find evidence (of which kind is not recorded) showing that the reversal of the valves, which provides significant deceleration, only occurred a few dozen meters outside the station.

A newspaper published after the accident with an artist’s impression of the train crashing into the street.

The train cars were towed away shortly after the accident, followed by the baggage- and mail cars being placed back on the tracks and towed away. It took 48 hours for the recovery of the locomotive to be permitted. A first attempt was made by rigging up 14 horses to slowly drag it down to street level, which failed, followed by a 250-ton winch being set up, powered by ten men. The tender was then tethered to the station building before the locomotive was lowered down to street level. Lastly, the tender was dragged back inside the station and removed.

Mechanics at the maintenance-facility find that the locomotive had suffered “little actual damage”, with their records from the train’s examination listing a few deformations and surface-level damage to the locomotive along with a not closer defined “ruptured brake pipe” on the train. Engineers rush to the maintenance-facility to examine the train, especially the brakes, but find that it has already been fixed by the time they arrive.

A photo taken after the locomotive had been lowered to street level, ahead of its removal.

The exact nature of the brake failure could never be determined as the brakes had been rebuilt by the time investigators got to it, leaving only vague theories on what occurred. The brake-system used by the train is referred to as an indirect pneumatic brake, which has pressurized reservoirs on each car that apply the brakes when the air from the reservoirs is directed to the brakes. A main pneumatic line running along the train is kept under pressure as well, its job being, in simplified terms, keeping the valves on those reservoirs shut so by overpowering them so that air can’t go from the reservoirs to the brakes. The brakes will apply if that main line is ruptured or pressure from it is released. However, a loss of pressure in the reservoirs will not apply the brakes, instead disabling them.

The locomotive crew found themselves charged with manslaughter and 5 counts of negligent injury, as it was decided that they had gone needlessly fast and then reacted to the brake failure late, worsening the outcome of the failure. There was even a guideline saying Montparnasse was to be approached at a speed slow enough to stop without the pneumatic brakes, but adherence to the guideline was allegedly next to nonexistent. A conductor was also put on trial, having to explain why he failed to apply handbrakes until after the train had come to a stop when he should have noticed excessive speed.

A photo from a newspaper showing the forward cars hanging out the end of the station.

Mister Pellerin ended up being sentenced to two months in jail and a 50 Franc fine for murder and purposeful bodily harm under lessening circumstances, while his fireman was sentenced to 25 Francs fine, the same as the conductor. For approximate reference, 50 francs were worth approximately as much as 254€/273 USD today, although the time-span makes for a poor comparability. Lessening circumstances noted by the court involved a spotless 19 year record, the fact that the ban on pneumatic brakes at the station was rarely obeyed, and that Mister Pellerin had been on duty without breaks for 6 hours and 45 Minutes by the time he was meant to stop at the station.

The Western Railway Company, the owner of the train and employer of the locomotive crew, accepted civil liability for the death of Miss Aiguillard. They signed a contract with her widower which guaranteed the Aiguillard-family damage pay, full funding of their two children’s education as well as eventual employment with the railway company.

The old Montparnasse station played an important role in history once more in August 1944, when the German governor of Paris surrendered to the French Army at the station. It lived on until it was replaced by a new station a short distance to the south, today’s Montparnasse station, in 1960, being demolished in 1969. The site is now occupied by the Tour Montparnasse, a 210m/690ft skyscraper which, as of 2023, holds the title for the third-highest building in France.

The approximate framing of the title-photo, captured on StreetView in 2020.

The oddity of the aftermath along with the long time the wreckage sat around in a downtown area led to a certain degree of fame, supported by the famous photographs being used for various media again and again over the last 100+ years. The famous photo of the locomotive leaned against the station wall has been used on various album covers, been printed onto schoolbooks, used as cover art for notepads and adapted to comics in more or less authentic versions. An amusement park in Brazil even displays a large-scale replica at the edge of their parking lot.

One of many album covers using the image (left) and the large-scale replica in Brazil, decorating the park’s main entrance.

Lastly, the accident of course didn’t go unnoticed in the movie- and TV-industry, with news of the accident even reaching the US shortly after it happened. Fictionalized adaptions can thus be found in a few movies and shows, from the children’s show Thomas the Tank Engine to a drastically dramatized sequence in the 2011 Scorsese-movie “Hugo” which ends with a train at the station in the same unique pose:

The accident as adapted in “Hugo” (2011) as part of a dream-sequence. Note that the station was far less crowded in real life.

_______________________________________________________________

I have chosen to stay off Medium’s monetization offers to keep these stories as accessible as possible, but you can support me with a small tip via “Buy me a coffee” if you feel like it.

_______________________________________________________________

A kind reader is 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.

--

--

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.