While modern trains are generally very safe, accidents like that of Montparnasse station are an indelible part of the history of the railways. This time, we’ll be focusing on one which is considered to be the worst in the history of the USA: the Great Train Wreck of 1918, in which two passenger trains collided head on. It all started on July 9 1918 in Nashville, the capital of the state of Tennessee. It was 07.07 when passenger train n°4 from the NC & StL Railway company left Union Station seven minutes later, heading to the city of Memphis. At roughly the same time, the n°1 left Memphis and Saint-Louis for Nashville at its scheduled departure time of 07.10. The first had six so-called ‘wooden-box’ carriages, including one smoking room, as well as a postal carriage and a baggage carriage. The second had six passenger carriages of the same kind as the n°4, plus a baggage carriage and two steel Pullman sleeper cars. And so both services rolled ahead at high speed.
As the train coming from Nashville reached a junction, the on-board technician whistled to ask for priority on the tracks. The line only bifurcated for 16 kilometres, but there were various places trains could pause to avoid collisions, and the system was supposed to be foolproof. The employee at the signal box gave the green light, but when he opened his register to note its passing, he noticed that the n°1 wasn’t there (the n°4 was supposed to have checked the register and had also mistook the sound of a passing switch engine for the n°1). That meant the two trains were likely to collide. So he blew his emergency whistle. But no one heard.The two trains collided at a speed somewhere between 80 and 95 kilometres per hour. The impact was terrible. The sound was like an explosion, audible for kilometres around, with locals rushing to the scene and alerting the authorities. The two locomotives had tipped over onto opposite sides of the tracks, while the front carriages disconnected and a fire had broken out. Several rescuers arrived in cars, while hundreds of others came via specially-chartered train.
There were several victims, both Black and white (at the time, the carriages were segregated). The injured were taken off to different medical establishments across the region, from Nashville hospital to various private institutions or makeshift emergency medical centres. Even in the morgues, white and Black people were separated, with extra staff recruited to deal with the mounting number of dead.Unsurprisingly, the local press showed great interest in the story, though their coverage often lacked a certain amount of rigour, with the number of deaths reported ranging from 25 to 170, depending on what you read. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) would later declare that 101 had died and 171 had been injured. But still a matter of great controversy, for several reasons. The first was that it was difficult to recognise many of the dead. The second was that the estimate of the number of passengers present in the NC & StL Railway trains seemed far less than there were on board. The company said the figure was 350, but survivors recalled two trains that were full to bursting, in which certain passengers were crammed in corridors. That was information that would prove vital in apportioning blame for this terrible catastrophe.Two inquiries were launched, one by Interstate Commerce Commission and one by the railway authorities, to find out the causes of the accident and to prevent anything similar happening again. But despite the scale of the tragedy, the inquiry found a succession of human errors, but found no individual personally responsible. So while some fault lay with the drivers of the n°4 train (because it should have stopped at the signal box to check the passage register and correctly identified that the n°1 train had passed), that wasn’t the only cause. In its official report, the ICC also reprimanded NC & StL Railway for dodgy (and badly implemented) operational practices.
While it was all over the local press, the catastrophe didn’t have a huge impact nationwide. That’s partly because the regional railway administration said it was ready to accept all compensation requests from victims to avoid legal action. It was also because the USA had entered the First World War in 1917 and all eyes were on what was happening in Europe. That conflict in fact led to the US government to nationalise its railways that year too. Perhaps we’ll talk about that in another article sometime soon.