Trains have been around for over 200 years, but their immense size and power are still impressive to behold. The average modern passenger train car can weigh up to 80,000 pounds—the weight of a fully-loaded semi-truck. Add that trains can have up to six or seven cars and travel between 90 and 100 mph, and you have a true marvel of transportation and physics.
However, while largely safe, the physical power and sheer weight of trains make accidents even more devastating. Below we have compiled what we know about the 5 worst train disasters in history. They span all over the 20th century and all over the world, from 1917 to 1989, from Mexico to Russia. Take a look to learn a bit about the dark side of railway history.
The Ufa Train Disaster – 575 Deaths
One late June evening in 1989, two passenger trains were passing each other between the towns of Ufa and Asha in the Ural Mountains. In total, there were over 1,300 passengers riding in nearly 40 cars attached to two train engines. The trains were carrying hundreds of children, both on their way to and from vacation camps on the beaches of the Black Sea.
Hundreds of meters away, a gas pipeline was leaking liquid gas into the gully where the trains were passing each other. The liquid gas formed a dense vapor in the valley, creating a tinderbox that was waiting for ignition. As the trains passed each other, one of the train’s wheels sparked and ignited the air.
The resulting explosion is estimated to have been the equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT and was visible from 95 miles. According to official records, 575 people were killed, including 181 children. There are multiple reports that list even higher death tolls—unofficial sources believe there were closer to 780 deaths that tragic night. Over 100 ambulances carried the injured to local hospitals, over 800 people in official reports.
One of the doctors from the scene, Mikhail Kalinin, had this to say about the incident: “I came to work [that day] fair-haired and returned gray-haired. After the tragedy, we could not speak about it...Heaven forbid that you will see such a human tragedy."
The Guadalajara Train Disaster – About 600 Deaths
In the midst of a violent revolution, 1915 proved to be a turbulent year for Mexico. In 1913, President Francisco Madero was assassinated, creating a power vacuum and throwing the nation into turmoil. The presidency was passed to Victoriano Huerta, but Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza immediately challenged him, installing Carranza as the new ruler. However, Pancho Villa continued the revolution, betraying Carranza.
In early 1915, Carranza’s forces managed to capture a base from his former ally in southern Mexico called “Guadalajara.” As this was a major victory, Carranza arranged for the families of his troops to travel by train in order to meet them and celebrate. The train that carried them was 20 cars long, leaving Colima on January 22nd with over 900 passengers. It was packed to a greater capacity than it could handle—reports say that some passengers were hanging onto the roof and undercarriages.
As the train entered a valley, it began descending with greater and greater speeds. Passengers were thrown from the train as it traveled on curves at a far greater speed than it was designed for. Because its brakes failed, the train completely left the tracks and plummeted into a large canyon. The resulting deaths led to over 600 casualties. When Carranza’s troops heard the news, some of them reportedly committed suicide from grief.
The Bihar Train Disaster – Between 500 & 800 Deaths
In June of 1981, India was experience a rather harsh monsoon season. Waters caused the rivers to rise, and powerful winds blew against bridges, homes, and other structures. On June 6th, a 9-car train was packed with nearly 1,000 passengers. This far exceeded the upper limits of the train’s design—in addition, due to the commonality of illegal passengers, the passenger count may have been even higher in reality.
The train left the station in Mansi and was traveling to Saharsa in the state of Bihar. It was traveling on a bridge over an engorged river when the train engineer suddenly braked, causing seven of the nine cares to plummet into the Baghmati River. Here, some reports differ from each other. The Rural Development Ministry explained that the sudden braking is what caused the derailment—this is the commonly accepted explanation.
However, the chairman of the Indian Railways Board reported that high winds blew the train into the river. The truth, as it often is, may lie somewhere in the middle. The “sudden brake” story includes the credible detail that the engineer applied the brakes in order to avoid striking a cow that had wandered onto the tracks. The story goes that the engineer, a Hindu man, would have likely tried to avoid striking the sacred animal.
However, braking alone would not have caused derailment. Many experts believe that the rain caused the wheels of the train to slip and derail. Through a combination of a wandering animal, a stormy season, and the faith of the engineer, an estimated 600 people lost their lives. Due to the remote location of the disaster site, help did not arrive for hours. By then, an estimated 300 people were washed away by the river—which local fishermen refused to search for due to social taboos.
The Ciurea Rail Disaster – Over 700 Deaths
In January 1917, Eastern Europe was dealing with the violence and brutality of World War I. In Romania, civilians and soldiers alike sought to escape the approaching German assault. As a result, they packed every available train car far beyond capacity.
An estimated 1,000 passengers packed 26 cars traveling between Iasi and Barlad. As the train approached the Ciurea station, it began a 10-mile descent on a steep grade. Reports say that wandering soldiers and overcrowded cars damaged the brakes, rendering them inoperable on the steep descent.
Train crews were unable to slow the train, even as the engines were thrown into reverse and sanding equipment increased friction between the wheels and the tracks. At the station, a second train was occupying the straight rail approach, forcing the runaway train to the other track on the right. The switch caused the train to derail at high speed, causing 24 carriages to leave the track—forming a fiery and tragic monument.
The Maurienne Derailment – Between 800 & 1,000 Deaths
The single worst railway disaster in history, the Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne incident took place the same year as the previous disaster on this list. During World War I, a train carrying over 1,000 passengers (almost entirely French soldiers) traveled from Italy into France for a short respite from the fighting. While the soldiers hoped for a small holiday away from the fighting, many of them would not have the chance to return home.
According to official records, 982 soldiers were on 19 train cars as it left for the station in the Maurienne valley. However, even more passengers may have been present and unreported due to locomotive shortages in wartime. The train engineer originally refused to leave the station due to the conditions of the train, but gave in to the commanding officer’s threat of punishment.
It departed Modane late on that wintery night, at 11:15 pm. The steep grade, in addition to the over-packed cars, caused the train’s brakes to fail as it descended into the valley. The train reached speeds in excess of 80 mph as it approached the station—far beyond its design limits.
The brakes functioned on only three of the cars, causing several of the wooden cars to derail at a mountain pass. The wooden cars smashed into one another, ignited by the candles used by the train workers in lieu of electric lights (which were not functioning). The situation was made critical by the unauthorized possession of grenades and explosives by soldiers onboard, as well as the geography of the crash site—the mountain walls provided no vent for the heat, causing the fire to intensify.
Official reports say that between 700 and 800 passengers were killed, but the situation was classified for many years due to the military’s part in the disaster. In addition, accounting for fatalities was difficult due to the fire, which burned until the following morning. Only 432 bodies could be identified of the approximately 800 deaths. Up to 1,000 deaths are possible due to the overcrowding of locomotives at the time and the military’s insistence on classifying the accident.