Montparnasse Derailment: When A Train Went Through A Station's Walls
A dramatic snapshot photograph of a derailed steam locomotive at Montparnasse Station, Paris, taken by an unknown photographer. Source: (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
You know what they say about train wrecks---we can't look away---and this now-iconic French photograph of a train dangling from a building has inspired double-takes for more than 100 years. The fact that the Montparnasse derailment, as the accident has become known, somehow managed to avoid killing a single person onboard is as amazing as the sheer sight of it. Let's take a closer look at this bizarre incident.
Coming in Hot
The Granville-Paris Express, carrying 131 passengers and pulling three luggage cars, a post car, and six-passenger cars, had gotten behind schedule on October 22, 1895. The train's conductor tried to shave off some time by speeding up, which meant that he was going way too fast as he approached the station. Naturally, he tried to stop, but the train's air brakes failed. At 4:00 P.M., the train came barreling through the Gare Montparnasse terminal, plowed through the safety bumper, slid across the concourse and smashed right through the 2 feet of bricks that comprised the station's exterior wall.
A Dangling Engine
After the train's engine breached the exterior wall, it plummeted 30 feet to the street below, landing on its nose. The rest of the train's cars, still attached to the engine, remained inside the building. It made for a dramatic scene from the Place de Rennes and from inside the Gare Montparnasse station.
A Lone Fatality
Miraculously, all of the passengers and crew of the Granville-Paris Express survived the accident. Only six of them suffered even minor injuries. But the derailment did result in a single death. A woman named Marie-Augustine Aguillard had offered to mind her husband's newsstand for him that morning while he ran out to pick up another load of newspapers. The location of his newsstand? Just below the site of the derailment. Aguillard, a mother of two, was fatally struck by falling bricks from the damaged wall. The railroad company provided financial support for her children in the years following the accident. It was the least they could do, really.
A Mess to Clean Up
The dangling engine sat untouched for two full days while investigators looked into the accident, then the daunting task of cleaning up the mess began. Surprisingly, none of the passenger or luggage cars were damaged, so it was fairly easy to remove them and get them back in working order. The engine, however, posed more of a problem. First, the train company tried to move the engine using a team of 14 horses, and when that didn't work, they used a 250-ton winch to lower the train onto the ground. From there, it was transported to a repair shop. There was minimal damage to the locomotive, so it was quickly repaired. As for the train station, workers began the task of laying brickwork to patch the enormous hole.
The investigation into the accident showed that the train's conductor was at fault for going too fast, and he was fined 50 francs. A guard at the train station was also fined 25 francs after it was revealed that he failed to apply the handbrake in a timely manner because he was distracted. We can't imagine why.
A Lasting Legacy
The Montparnasse derailment has gone down as one of the more spectacular accidents in railway history. In the two days between the time of the accident and the clean-up, folks flocked to the scene to take photographs of the wreckage. Images have been used on posters, album covers, books, and even t-shirts. A replica of the accident is on display at a railway museum in Brazil, and it was even recreated in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.
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