General Knowledge

10 Horrifying Railroad Bridge Disasters

Many would agree that traveling by train is a much more relaxing experience than taking the motorway. Once aboard a railroad car, you don’t have to drive, look at a map, or curse other drivers’ carelessness. And trains are much safer than cars. Take the year 2021. During those twelve months, a total of three people died in rail accidents. In stark contrast, 43,000 lost their lives on America’s roads.

But traveling by train is not always safer. We’ve unearthed 10 rail disasters over the years, resulting in a total of more than 800 deaths, not to mention numerous injuries. Each of these horrible accidents has one factor in common: railway bridges. So if these railway bridges scare you a bit, you’re not being entirely unreasonable.

Related: 10 shocking man-made disasters

10 Münchenstein Bridge—1891

Most people probably think of Switzerland as a well-regulated nation where things generally run like clockwork. But that legendary stability was shattered for once on a balmy June afternoon in 1891. A packed train had left the city of Basel at 2:15 p.m. All seemed well when the train pulled by two locomotives arrived at the Münchenstein bridge. .

But as the lead engine started to cross the bridge, it suddenly flipped over the edge, twisted at a right angle and plunged into the river. The second engine followed her into the water, as did the seven packed passenger carriages. The carriages were made of lightweight wood and broke apart after the fall, a factor that no doubt contributed to the horrific death toll of 71 and 171 injuries. It was and still is the worst rail disaster in Swiss history.[1]

9 Tay Bridge—1879

The Tay Railway Bridge opened in 1888 and spans nearly two miles (3.2 kilometres) across the Firth of Tay, the river’s estuary that empties into the North Sea. The northern end of the bridge carried the railway to the Scottish city of Dundee. After its inauguration, less than two years passed before disaster struck one December afternoon in 1889 during a violent storm with exceptionally high winds.

When a train crossed all 85 spans of the bridge at 7:15 pm, some of those near the center gave way and six carriages fell into the winter waters of the Tay. Seventy-five people died in the accident. A subsequent court of inquiry concluded that “the collapse of the bridge was caused by the insufficiency of the transversal bracing and its fixings to withstand the force of the gale.” In other words, an engineering flaw. A replacement bridge was opened in 1887 and stands to this day.[2]

8 Whangaehu River Bridge—1953

The Whangaehu River flows through the North Island of New Zealand, and by Christmas Eve 1953, floods had increased its waters. The events of that night gave the Maori name of a town on the river, Tangiwai, a hideous relevance. The name translates as “weeping waters”, and it was the site of a terrible accident.

When the Wellington to Auckland express, carrying 285 passengers, crossed the bridge over the Whangaehu at Tangiwai, the crossing structure collapsed, throwing the engine and carriages into the water. This resulted in 151 deaths. Many aboard the train were on their way home for Christmas and, in a macabre twist, brightly wrapped Christmas presents lay interspersed with the gruesome wreckage of the train.[3]

7 Springbrook Bridge—1859

On June 27, 1859, some 150 passengers were aboard a Michigan Southern Railroad overnight express that had left Chicago for Toledo. Not long before midnight, the train traveled through South Bend. It was traveling slowly, below 20 mph (32.2 km/h), as it approached the Springbrook Bridge. Normally this bridge spanned a ravine with a small stream, one that very often dried up completely.

But on this June night, a heavy rain had fallen, turning the stream into a raging torrent. The force of the flow undermined and collapsed an embankment supporting the bridge, causing it to collapse. The express train plunged into the ravine, and according to a contemporary report in the chicago daily, the carriages “were almost smashed into firewood.” At least 60 passengers lost their lives, with many bodies only found days later as they had fallen down the river.[4]

6 Bold Street Bridge—1977

The worst train accident in Australian history occurred in 1977, and on its 40th anniversary, the BBC dramatically headlined it: “The Rail Disaster That Changed Australia.” Early one January morning, a train carrying 469 travelers set off from Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains. A couple of hours after its departure, the train, pulled by an electric motor, approached the Bold Street Road Bridge in Granville.

Before reaching the bridge, the locomotive and two carriages went off the rails in a curve and crashed into the structure of the Bold Street crossing. The impact killed eight people. The concrete sections of the highway bridge, all weighing 518 tonnes (470 tons), collapsed on top of the train, flattening it almost flat in places and causing many more casualties. When an arduous and harrowing rescue operation was over, the final death toll was 83, with another 213 injured.[5]

5 Ashtabula Bridge—1876

Ashtabula, Ohio, was the scene of a horrific railroad accident during a winter blizzard in December 1876. A Pacific Express train, towed by two locomotives, was going from Buffalo to Cleveland with about 160 passengers in 11 railroad cars. When the first engine crossed the Ashtabula Bridge, the driver heard a terrifying crack. He increased his speed and managed to cross the first stretch.

That first engine had reached safety. But the rest of the train broke off and fell 70 feet (21 meters) into the Ashtabula River. As fires fueled by broken oil lamps broke out, some passengers managed to escape by breaking the carriage’s windows and getting out. In the chaos and carnage, there was some difficulty in arriving at a precise death toll. But in the end, the number of deaths was estimated at between 92 and 97.[6]

4 Gasconade Bridge—1855

November 1, 1855 was a special day in St. Louis because the train was leaving for Jefferson City on the Pacific Railroad for the first time. Some 600 great and good were on board the train as it left the St. Louis station. The spirits of the passengers were barely dampened by the heavy rain that fell as the train headed for Jefferson City.

But it was this rain that caused the terrible fate that awaited the train. The locomotive moved cautiously over the wooden structure of the Gasconade Bridge, traveling only 12 mph (19.3 km/h). Even so, the trestle structure collapsed and the train was thrown into the swollen Gasconade River below. In fact, the trestle structure was a temporary fix because the bridge had not been completed properly. Thirty-one lost their lives in this railway celebration that turned into an ominous disaster.[7]

3 Eden Train Wreck—1904

On a stormy night in August 1904, a Denver and Rio Grande Railroad express train was heading south from Colorado Springs to Pueblo. Given the poor conditions, the train engineer proceeded cautiously, keeping his speed to no more than 20 mph (32.2 km/h). However, a catastrophe occurred when the locomotive and its carriages crossed Bridge No. 110B, which has an unromantic name.

The engine barely managed to clear the bridge as it gave way, but it was washed back into the water below along with several cars. The death toll was 96. Remarkably, the bridge was immediately rebuilt, with the remnants of the wreckage still scattered below. Another Denver and Rio Grande Railroad express train crossed the reborn Bridge #110B just 24 hours after the tragedy.[8]

2 Beloeil Bridge—1864

In June 1864, a Grand Trunk Railway train was headed from Quebec to Montreal. This particular service was known as the “Immigrant Special” because it was heavily used by newcomers to Canada. That day, the train had 458 souls on board, many of them coming from Poland and Germany.

As the train approached the Beloeil Bridge, which spanned the Richelieu River, the engineer should have seen a red warning light. But he apparently didn’t see it or just didn’t react. That was a fatal mistake, to say the least. That light indicated that the swing bridge was open to allow river traffic through. The train then plunged through the open space of the bridge into the 10-foot (3-meter) deep water below. The death toll was at least 99, with another 100 injured. The engineer survived.[9]

1 Desjardins Canal Bridge—1857

A Great Western Railway train left Toronto early on the morning of March 12, 1857, en route to Hamilton, where it was due to arrive early in the evening. He was moving at medium speed when he approached the wooden trestle bridge that spanned the Desjardins Canal.

The channel ran about 60 feet (18.3 meters) below the bridge in a cut, and at the time of the accident, the channel was under two feet of ice. As the train moved towards the crossing, the wooden structure collapsed. The locomotive and its tender, plus two passenger carriages, crashed into the canal. There were about 90 passengers on the train, and 59 of them died.[10]

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