The Montparnasse Derailment

On the afternoon of October 22, 1895, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, the engineer of the Granville–Paris Express train, was irritable. He was behind schedule, though it was anyone’s guess why, since the train left Granville at 8:45 a.m., its usual time. Pellerin hated to be late.

Gare Montparnasse station, prior to the derailment

The speed of steam locomotive No. 721 may have been slowed by its cargo. Far from traveling light, the Granville–Paris Express had 131 passengers aboard and was hauling six coaches, three luggage vans, and a post van to Gare Montparnasse terminus.

Pellerin drove the locomotive faster to make up for lost time, and at 4 p.m., Gare Montparnasse came into view. The conductor was doing paperwork, and hadn’t even noticed how fast they were traveling.

Pellerin didn’t brake as soon as usual, which would have made the train even later but he was confident he could stop quickly and safely, thanks to its state-of-the-art Westinghouse air brake. He applied it a moment later, but to his horror, nothing happened.

Pellerin then tried the locomotive brakes but they were ineffective; he was unable to curb the train’s speed. His scrambling caught the conductor’s attention, who realized in a moment that the train was entering the station too fast and that it was too late to apply his own handbrake.

The Granville–Paris Express train ran across the buffer stop on the station platform, crashed through a 23 inch wall, then fell over 32 feet to land on the street.

Photo credit: Levy & fils

The following day, London’s Morning Post ran a story by their Paris correspondent describing “a most sensational accident [that] occurred at 10 minutes past four this afternoon.”



Incredibly, the accident claimed only one life, and that was of a poor woman selling newspapers near the station. Marie-Augustine Aguilard was struck and killed by falling masonry. Six people had injuries.

The Pall Mall Gazette of London wrote that the train was still suspended over the road two days after the train derailed. “According to the information given before the examining magistrate,” they wrote, “there appears to be no doubt that Pellerin, the driver, was to blame and that he will be tried before the Correctional Tribunal for manslaughter, due to imprudence.”

Four days after the accident, The Star of Guernsey, England wrote, “Pellerin declared yesterday to the examining magistrate that on reaching Dreux and Versailles he asked the stationmaster to provide him with a new engine as the brake upon his own was not under proper control. They are held to be responsible for the accident in so far that they did not reverse the engine in time, and that they broke the rule by relying upon the Westinghouse brake to draw up at the terminus.”

Pellerin was found guilty of driving too fast and fined 50 francs. The conductor was fined for not applying the handbrake; he paid 25 francs.

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