Developed in Great Britain at the onset of the 19th century, steam locomotives were once the most common form of transportation over long distances in the world. As the use of the locomotive began to compete with cars and airplanes as a method of travel, so did the use of steam to power the locomotive. Many trains adopted either diesel or electric power as early as the 1930s. By the 1950s in North America, and the 1970s in Europe, steam was no longer in use to power locomotives at all, but the train was still a valuable method of transportation. Whether cross country, cross continent or simply commuter, even with billions of cars clogging the roads across the globe and a plane leaving a runway for take off every minute, trains are still a very safe and reliable method of transportation.
The train has not been without its share of accidents, however, with the first recorded train wreck occurring in 1833 in New Jersey nearly killing former President John Quincy Adams. While the accident in New Jersey was a relatively minor one, two dead, and the near death of a former President notwithstanding, there have been many far more devastating train wrecks in the world, predominantly in the last century. Here are the ten deadliest.
10 Al Ayyat, Egypt: 383 dead
While en route from Cairo to Luxor in February of 2002 a gas cylinder used for cooking exploded on a passenger train, engulfing seven cars from the train in flames. At the time, the passenger cars were severely overloaded, with approximately each passenger car carrying double the maximum 150 passengers safely able to fit. The majority of those in the cars that were on fire burned to death, while others, who leapt from the train, had no better luck and died escaping the inferno. When all was said and done, the fire had burned so hot and for so long that most of the dead were reduced to ashes. As the cars were overcrowded and there was no passenger list for the train, some have estimated the death toll may be three times higher than what the official number of 383 has been placed at.
9 Awash, Ethiopia: 400 dead
The worst train wreck in African history occurred in January of 1985 when an express passenger train derailed near the town of Awash in Ethiopia. As the train took a curve while crossing a bridge over the Awash River, the excessive speed that it was travelling at caused the train to derail, resulting in four of the train's five cars to plummet to the bottom of a ravine along the river. Of the 1,000 passengers on board roughly 400 died with a further 500 suffering serious injury.
8 Torre del Bierzo, Spain: 500 dead
A massive collision inside a tunnel set off the biggest train disaster in Spanish history. When a 12-carriage mail train suffered from break failure inside the tunnel in Torre del Bierzo, Spain, there was no way to notify the coal train or the shunting train both heading into the tunnel from either direction, of the problem. The shunting train smashed into the mail train from behind, causing both to catch fire, followed by the coal train hitting the wreckage from the opposite direction. The collision between the coal train and the shunting train in particular proved to be deadly, causing the majority of the January 1944 disasters casualties.
7 Balvano, Italy: 520 dead
Italy also suffered the worst train wreck in its history in 1944. Poor quality coal used to run an Italian steam engine is to blame for the 520 deaths in the Balvano train disaster. As the coal was inferior due to wartime shortages, it slowly produced carbon monoxide within the grossly overloaded train. As luck would have it, the train stalled inside a tunnel just outside of Balvano. Once the train stalled, with the majority of its cars within the tunnel, it was only a matter of time before many passengers succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning and died. Those who survived were in cars that had not been in the tunnel and were able to get out of the train in time.
6 Ufa, Russia: 575-624 dead
An explosion rocked the town of Asha along the Kuybyshev Railway on June 4, 1989, roughly 30 miles from the city of Ufa. Still the Soviet Union at the time, the Ufa train explosion is the worst in both Russian and Soviet history. When two passenger trains were passing each other along the rail line, they both unknowingly ignited a massive explosion due to a gas leak in a pipeline close to the tracks. Between 575-625 people were killed and nearly 1,000 more injured when 37 train cars were destroyed, seven being completely charred.
5 Guadalajara, Mexico: 600 dead
It was a small miracle there were any survivors of the Guadalajara train disaster at all. In January of 1915 during the height of the Mexican Revolution, a train carrying families of revolutionary President Venustiano Carranza was bound for Guadalajara from Colima. The train was beyond overcrowded; there were even people riding on the roofs of the cars of the train. While negotiating curves in the track at high speeds during a steep descent, the train suffered break failure and derailed, falling over the side and into a canyon. At least 600 of the 900 passengers on board died.
4 Ciurea, Romania: 600+ dead
During the First World War in northeastern Romania, a train carrying wounded soldiers and refugees headed to Ciurea station in hopes of giving the wounded soldiers medical attention and the fleeing citizens a reprieve from the war. Instead, because of a massive break failure, the train became a runaway bullet, picking up high speeds at the station before derailing and catching fire. Only two of the 26 cars the locomotive was carrying stayed on the tracks; the rest flew off and burned to nothing. Because the train was so overcrowded official estimates claim just over 600 dead, while some have estimated as many as 1,000 people perished in the disaster.
3 Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, France: 700 dead
Another train disaster during World War I attributed to a break malfunction, the Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne train wreck in France occurred on December 12, 1917, almost 11 months to the day of the Ciurea disaster in Romania. The greatest rail disaster in French history, a train carrying roughly 1,000 French soldiers headed into a valley with a steep descent exceeding speeds of 60 miles per hour when the legal speed was only 25 miles per hour. After hitting a speed of roughly 85 miles per hour, the train derailed causing a massive pile up of cars and a subsequent fire. Because of the voracity of the fire, which burned into the following day, only half of the dead could be identified.
2 Bihar, India: 800 dead
Talk about a cruel twist of fate. Not only did the Indian train carrying passengers from Mansi to Saharsa apparently get hit by a cyclone while crossing a bridge over the Bagmati River in the state of Bihar, it also apparently suffered break failure while trying to stop traversing the bridge during the storm. While the exact reason for the train derailment is uncertain, the cyclone, break failure, or both, what is certain is that the train plunged from the bridge and into the river below. While officials maintain there were around 800 people on the train, there may have been up to 1,000 passengers; the true number will never be known. While some of the bodies were eventually recovered, the river washed the majority of the dead away.
1 Peraliya, Sri Lanka: 1,700 dead
The deadliest train wreck in history is simply a case of wrong place, wrong time. That is the only way to sum up the Sri Lankan passenger train Queen of The Sea’s fateful journey on December 26, 2004. The Tsunami that hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and other countries along the Indian Ocean claimed nearly 300,000 people, with 1,700 of them aboard the Queen of the Sea. The train was travelling along the coast when the disaster struck, flooding the train and drowning all passengers aboard, making the deadliest railway disaster of all time a gruesome and tragic extra to one of the deadliest natural disasters of all time.