Let’s Pause For a Station Break

The story behind the world’s most famous train wreck photo.

Train Wreck At  Montparnasse 1895
The Granville-to-Paris Express after, uh, leaving the station.

When the Granville-to-Paris Express left Granville at 8:45 am on the morning of October 22, 1895, there was no reason for the crew and 131 passengers aboard to expect anything but an uneventful trip. After all, the train—consisting of a locomotive and a dozen luggage, postal and passenger cars—departed on time and was being driven by Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, a 19-year railroad man. But as the Granville Express made its seven-hour and ten-minute passage, Pellerin found the train running several minutes late. In an attempt to make up time, Pellerin approached Gare Montparnasse in Paris at cruising speed, a decision that would require him to utilize the Westinghouse (air) brake to safely bring the train to a stop. When the Westinghouse brake failed, the locomotive brakes were insufficient, and the resulting accident has been immortalized in one of the most enduring photos in transportation history.

However, Pellerin wasn’t the only crewman found to be at fault. Conductor Albert Mariette was pre-occupied by paperwork during the train’s approach to the station and made no attempt to apply the hand brake until just before the Express crashed through the buffer stop. From there, the locomotive plowed 100 feet across the concourse, through the station wall, and onto the terrace outside before plummeting 30 feet down to the street below. More than a century later, prints and posters of the definitive photo of the wreckage still sell the world over. In 1991, the rock band Mr. Big even used the image to illustrate the cover of its hit debut album, Lean Into It

Considering the spectacular scene, fallout from the accident was minimal. Although the locomotive and forward luggage cars were badly damaged all the passenger cars remained inside the station. As a result, only two passengers and three crewmen suffered serious injuries. There was, however, one fatality on the street, as a newspaper vendor’s wife, Marie-Augustine Aguilard—standing in for her husband at his newsstand—was struck by a falling piece of the station’s masonry.

Both Pellerin and Mariette were fined—50 and 25 francs, respectively—and Pellerin was sentenced to two months in jail. More than just a dubious legacy, the duo’s negligence gives new meaning to the phrase, “The train is leaving the station.”

Other famous train wrecks:
The Angola Horror
The Tay Bridge Disaster