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World's Worst Train Wrecks, Crashes & Accidents

This page describes many of the earliest, deadliest, and strangest train wrecks in the U.S. and worldwide.

More railroad records:  Early Railroads,  Locomotives,  Bridges & Tunnels,  Routes & Track,  Train Records

Note: This page was written by Christopher Muller and is copyright © 2013 RailServe.com. Content may not be reproduced in whole or in part on any website, message board, or other medium. Please contact us with any questions, suggestions, or corrections.

EARLY TRAIN WRECKS

What was the world's first deadly passenger train crash?

The first passenger train accident occurred on the Camden & Amboy Railroad on November 8, 1833. As the result of a broken axle, a passenger car derailed and overturned between Spotswood and Hightstown, New Jersey. The incident killed two and injured at least a dozen others. Cornelius Vanderbilt (later president of the New York Central Railroad) broke his leg, while former U.S. President John Quincy Adams escaped unharmed.

What was the world's first head-on train collision?

The first head-on collision occurred on Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad on August 11, 1837. A logging train and passenger train collided head-on at Suffolk, Virginia, killing three and injuring dozens of the 200 passengers.

What was the world's first major train crash at a bridge?

The first major railroad accident at a bridge occurred in Norwalk, Connecticut on May 6, 1853. A New Haven Railroad express train with 200 passengers from New York to Boston sped off an open draw bridge at 50 mph, plunging into the Norwalk River. The locomotive and first two passenger cars were submerged, while the third broke in two with half hanging in the river. The death toll was the worst of any American train accident to-date, with 48 confirmed deaths and 8 more missing. The engineer, who had failed to observe a stop signal and then jumped to safety, was charged with gross negligence for the disaster.

What was the world's first runaway passenger train?

The first passenger train runaway occurred in Tehachapi, California on January 20, 1883. A Southern Pacific express train from San Francisco to Los Angeles stopped at Tehachapi to cut out a helper engine used to assist on the steep grades. While uncoupled from the locomotive during this change, the passenger cars began coasting downgrade at speeds up to 70mph until they derailed four miles away. An investigation found that the hand brakes had been intentionally released by two men attempting to rob the baggage car. A combination of inexperience and the steep 2.5% grade likely caused the criminals to lose control of the train, killing themselves and 19 passengers.

DEADLIEST TRAIN WRECKS BY CAUSE OR TYPE

What was the world's deadliest train crash?

The world's deadliest train crash occurred in Sri Lanka on the "Queen of the Sea Line" between Colombo and Galle. The train was near Telwatta on the morning of December 26, 2004, just several hundred feet inland, when tsunami waves struck the train following an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The train stopped and hundreds of local residents climbed atop to avoid the surging waters. Larger waves then struck and destroyed the train, killing at least 1,700 people on and in the crowded passenger cars.

What was the world's deadliest train accident at a bridge?

The worst railroad bridge accident occurred on June 6, 1981 near Mansi, 250 miles northwest of Calcutta, India. An eight-car passenger train plunged off a bridge into the Bagmati River, killing nearly everyone aboard. An investigation found no damage to the bridge or tracks, so it is generally believed that the incident resulted from high winds or brake failure. There was no record of the number of passengers aboard, but an investigation identified 268 bodies and at least 340 missing for a death toll of 608 or more.

What was the world's deadliest train accident in a tunnel?

A deadly train accident occurred on January 3, 1944 in a tunnel near Torre del Bierzo in the León mountains of Spain. The 12-car Galicia Express from Madrid to Corunna lost its brakes and ran into the back of a three-car freight within Tunnel No. 20. Minutes later, an oncoming 27-car coal train plowed into the wreck. The wooden cars burned inside the tunnel, delaying rescue efforts for two days. The official death toll was reported to be 78, but studies have estimated that more than 500 died in the impact and resulting fire.

A second incident vying for the title of deadliest tunnel accident occurred in Balvano, Italy on March 2, 1944. An estimated 700 people were riding in boxcars on a 45-car freight train hauled by two steam locomotives. Due to the heavy load, steep grade, and wet conditions, the train stalled within the mile-long Armi Tunnel. The coal smoke asphyxiated the crew before they could get the train restarted. Unaware of the impending danger, the majority of riders suffered a similar fate. The resulting death toll was 530, the worst rail accident in Italy's history.

What was the world's deadliest train accident caused by a tunnel collapse?

On June 16, 1972, approximately 60 miles north of Paris, a collapse within the mile-long Vierzy Tunnel caused the crash of two passenger trains. A six-car passenger train from Paris to Laon struck a pile of debris and derailed within the tunnel, followed by a three-car Paris-bound passenger train just minutes later. In total, 108 were killed and an additional 111 injured in the incident.

What was the world's deadliest train accident caused by an avalanche?

The world's worst railroad accident caused by an avalanche occurred on March 1, 1910 in the Cascade Mountains at Wellington (now Tye), Washington. A blizzard struck the area in the final week of February, dropping several feet of snow per day. On February 24, the Great Northern Railway's westbound Spokane Express from Spokane to Seattle stalled in snow drifts east of 2.6-mile Cascade Tunnel. Two nights later, the train made it through the tunnel to Wellington, where it joined a similarly stalled mail train. Some passengers took refuge in the railroad bunkhouse and nearby cottages, while most slept onboard the train which was still heated by coal-burning stoves. Snow plows were sent to rescue the trains but made little progress in the continued blizzard conditions.

On the night of February 28, the snow stopped and temperatures rose but the worst was yet to come. A thunderstorm triggered an avalanche that struck the depot area and carried the trains 150 feet downhill into a gorge. A total of 96 people were killed in the incident, including 35 passengers and 61 railroad employees, while 23 others survived with serious injuries. Concrete snow sheds were built to protect the tracks until the routing was eventually abandoned in 1929 with the opening of a new 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel at lower elevation.

What was the world's deadliest train accident caused by an external explosion?

The deadliest railway accident in Soviet history occurred on June 4, 1989 near the town of Asha. Three hours before the incident, operators of a pipeline noticed a drop in pressure. They failed to check for a leak however, instead raising the flow to increase pressure. Trains passing the pipeline on the Kuybyshev Railway had notified the dispatcher of strong fumes, but no action had been taken given the remoteness of the area. Then, shortly after midnight local time, two oncoming passenger trains operating between Novosibirsk and Adler ignited the gas. The resulting explosion burned all 38 cars of the trains, killing 575 passengers and injuring more than 600 others.

DEADLIEST TRAIN WRECKS BY REGION

What was the deadliest train crash in North America?

North America's deadliest train accident occurred in Mexico on January 22, 1915. Mexican President Francisco Madero was assassinated in 1913 and control was passed to Victoriano Huerta. Huerta's government, however, faced stiff opposition from Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa. When Carranza and his troops captured Guadalajara on January 18, 1915, he ordered a special train to transport the families of his soldiers inland from Colima (on the Pacific Coast) to Guadalajara. Four days later, the engineer of this 900-passenger train lost control descending a steep grade. The entire train derailed on a curve and plunged into a canyon, killing more than 600 and seriously injuring many of the rest.

What was the deadliest train crash in the USA?

The worst train crash in U.S. history occurred on July 9, 1918 just west of Nashville, Tennessee. Two passenger trains collided head-on, each at a speed of approximately 50mph, on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway. The wreck killed 89 and injured at least 56 others. An investigation found that the eastbound express train from Memphis was running a half hour late. The westbound was to hold at Shops Junction, just outside Nashville Union Station, for the eastbound to pass. For unknown reason, the westbound continued past Shops Junction onto a single track section known as Dutchman's Bend where it collided with the eastbound.

What was the deadliest Amtrak train crash in the USA?

The deadliest Amtrak crash occurred at the Big Bayou Canot Bridge in Mobile, Alabama, on September 22, 1993. At about 2:45am, a tugboat pilot disoriented by fog unknowingly slammed a barge into the CSX swing bridge, knocking the bridge three feet out of alignment. Although severely kinked, the rails did not break and thus the track circuit (and clear signal indication) remained intact. Approximately eight minutes later, Amtrak's Sunset Limited train carrying 220 passengers from Los Angeles to Miami derailed on the misaligned bridge at 72mph. The locomotives plus four of the eight cars plunged into the water, where the the locomotive fuel tanks exploded. The four remaining cars derailed but stayed upright on the remaining part of the bridge. The incident killed 47 and injured 103 others.

What was the deadliest train crash in South America?

South America's deadliest train accident occurred on March 20, 1946 at Aracaju, Brazil, 800 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. The locomotive and four cars of a passenger train between Aracaju and Capela derailed on a steep descent, killing 185 of and injuring 300 more of the estimated 1,000 passengers.

What was the deadliest train crash in Africa?

On February 20, 2002, an 11-car Egyptian passenger train traveling from Cairo to Luxor caught fire. A cooking gas cylinder exploded in the fifth car and fire spread for two hours before the engineer realized and stopped the train at Al Ayyat. The fire raged so hot that seven of the cars burned to the ground and hundreds of bodies were reduced to ash. The official death count from the Egyptian government was 383, but media sources estimated the true number near 1000.

If one accepts the official report of the Egyptian tragedy, Africa's deadliest train crash would instead be a derailment in Ethiopia on January 14, 1985. Four cars of a five-car passenger train plunged into a ravine at Awash, likely due to excessive speed on a bridge. The accident killed approximately 428 and injured nearly all the rest of the train's estimated 1,000 passengers.

What was the deadliest train crash in Europe?

Europe's deadliest train crash occurred in France during World War I on December 12, 1917. A train of 19 passenger coaches was coupled to a single steam locomotive because its second locomotive was requested elsewhere for a munitions train. Only the first three cars had air brakes, with the rest possessing hand brakes or no brakes at all. The train was to carry 982 French soldiers home from Italy for a 15-day leave during the holidays. The engineer initially refused to operate the overloaded troop train but complied after threats of military discipline.

The accident occurred on the Culoz–Modane Railway, sometimes known as the Maurienne Valley Line. The engineer lost control of the train after departing Modane. Descending a steep grade of over 3%, the train accelerated to speeds over 80mph and the coaches derailed shortly before the Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne station. The locomotive remained on the rails and continued into the station. There, the engineer picked up employees and soldiers and returned to the accident site to assist in the recovery. The wooden coaches burned for many hours, however, and the impact and resulting fire killed more than 700 of the soldiers onboard.

What was the deadliest train crash in Asia?

Sri Lanka, 2004. See above: "What was the world's deadliest train crash?"

What was the deadliest train crash in the South Pacific?

On December 24, 1953, a lahar (debris flow) resulting from the 1945 volcanic eruption of Mount Ruapehu washed away a railway bridge span over the Whangaehu River near Waiouru, North Island, New Zealand. Minutes later, the engine and first six cars of the Wellington to Aukland overnight express train plunged into the river, while the remaining five cars stayed on the track. Rescue efforts were hindered by the remoteness of the bridge and the lahar carrying railcars and bodies for miles. It is estimated that 155 of the nearly 300 passengers perished.


 


 

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