A Period of Drama: The Modane Train Disaster 1917

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image of the Modane train disaster

In December 1917 the Great War had been raging since 1914 and many lives had been lost in combat on both sides. In the period coming up to Christmas that year, French soldiers were travelling back from fighting in Italy and attempting to go home. Travel was difficult in the Alps at the best of times, but this party of an estimated one thousand soldiers and officers were attempting the journey by train. Their journey was to start in Turin, Italy and take them across the Alps to Lyon in France.

A single locomotive had nineteen carriages attached to it, but the train driver was refusing to leave the station in Turin. Sixteen of the carriages had no brakes and the driver was concerned for the safety of his train. Though the locomotive was capable of pulling the carriages loaded with men and their equipment, his concern was that he would be unable stop such a heavily laden train.

As most of Europe was at war, manpower and equipment were in short supply on the railways and the railway lines were considerably overloaded.  The French officers naturally wanted their men to be home by Christmas and the driver’s warnings were dismissed. At one point an officer pulled a gun on the driver and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get the train started. Reluctantly the driver agreed, and the train started its slow journey up and through the mountains.

Approaching the town of Modane, the train came out of the Cern tunnel and began a steep descent. But as the driver had warned, the brakes on the train were too inadequate to slow the train and the sheer weight of the carriages pushed the train faster and faster down the steep gradient. The train careered wildly down the steep track and was out of control by the time it came to the bottom of the descent, near a wooden bridge. It was then that the first carriage shot of the rails and the remaining carriages crashed into each other. The carriages were made of wood and some caught fire, developing into an inferno in a matter of minutes. An estimated 800 people died and in some cases the bodies were unrecognisable because fires in some carriages burned very fiercely.

The tragedy was compounded by a cover-up by French authorities because senior army officers were involved in the decision to begin the journey with an overloaded and essentially unsafe train. Having kept the accident a secret for over a decade the truth only came out when the driver of the train, who survived, told his story.

Copyright Tom Kane © 2018

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