Versailles train crash

Versailles train crash

One of the worst rail disasters of the 19th century, the Versailles train crash, occurred on May 8, 1842 at Meudon (Versailles), France. Following the King's fete celebrations at the Palace of Versailles, a train returning to Paris crashed at Meudon after the leading locomotive broke an axle. The carriages behind piled into the wrecked engines and caught fire. At least 55 passengers were killed trapped in the carriages, including the explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville.

Death of Dumont d'Urville

On 8 May 1842 Dumont and his family boarded a train to Versailles to see the water games celebrating the King. Near Meudon the train’s locomotive derailed, the wagons rolled and the tender’s coal ended up on the front of the train and caught fire. Dumont's whole family died in the flames of the first French railway disaster. Dumont's remains were identified by Dumontier, a doctor on board the ship the Astrolabe, and a phrenologist. He had taken a cast of Dumont's head before the accident, and was able to recognise his remains by its shape and characteristic lumps. Dumont was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. It was an early example of forensic identification. The accident led to the abandonment of the then-common practice of locking passengers in their carriages in France. It was among the first major rail disasters causing multiple deaths.

equence of Events

The events are described in an 1879 account of the disaster in "Notes on Railroad Accidents" by Charles Francis Adams Jr published by G.P. Putnam's Sons :

"At half past five o'clock these had stopped playing, and a general rush ensued for the trains then about to leave for Paris. That which went by the road along the left bank of the Seine was densely crowded, and so long that two locomotives were required to draw it. As it was moving at a high rate of speed between Bellevue and Meudon, the axle of the foremost of these two locomotives broke, letting the body of the engine drop to the ground. It instantly stopped, and the second locomotive was then driven by its impetus on top of the first, crushing its engineer and fireman, while the contents of both the fire-boxes were scattered over the roadway and among the debris. Three carriages crowded with passengers were then piled on top of this burning mass and there crushed together into each other. The doors of these carriages were locked, as was then and indeed is still the custom in Europe, and it so chanced that they had all been newly painted. They blazed up like pine kindlings. Some of the carriages were so shattered that a portion of those in them were enabled to extricate themselves, but the very much larger number were held fast; and of these such as were not so fortunate as to be crushed to death in the first shock perished hopelessly in the flames before the eyes of a throng of lookers-on impotent to aid. Fifty-two or fifty-three persons were supposed to have lost their lives in this disaster, and more than forty others were injured; the exact number of the killed, however, could never be ascertained, as the piling-up of the cars on top of the two locomotives had made of the destroyed portion of the train a veritable holocaust of the most hideous description. Not only did whole families perish together,—in one case no less than eleven members of the same family sharing a common fate,—but the remains of such as were destroyed could neither be identified nor separated. In one case a female foot was alone recognizable, while in others the bodies were calcined and fused into an indistinguishable mass."


Examination of several broken axles from British railway vehicles by William John Macquorn Rankine showed that they had failed by brittle cracking across their diameters, a problem now known as fatigue. At the time, there was considerable confusion about the problem. A myth grew up that the metal "re-crystallised" in some strange way, thereby weakening the product. It was to be some years before Rankine's work was recognised as being correct. It is likely that the axle on the front locomotive at Versailles was also caused by the same problem of fatigue. The problem of broken axles was widespread on all railways at the time, and continued to occur for many years before engineers developed better axle designs. The pioneering work of August Wohler later in the century helped improve testing of axles, and so increase axle life.

ee also

*Fatigue (material)
*List of pre-1950 rail accidents
*List of rail accidents of major historic significance


*Peter R Lewis and Alistair Nisbet, "Wheels to Disaster!: The Oxford train wreck of Christmas Eve, 1874", Tempus (2008) ISBN 978 0 7524 4512 0

External links

* [ Discussion in 1879 book of the Versailles accident]

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