The Deadliest Train Derailments In World History

Since the early 1800s, trains have been used as a form of public transportation around the world. When the railroads were first built, it allowed stressful, dangerous journeys that took weeks or months to take only days. It opened up the world to travel for pleasure instead of necessity. Although many people consider trains to be safer than airplanes or automobile travel, the fact is that hundreds of people become train crash casualties every year. 

The worst train derailments in history span more than two hundred years of rail travel, with the oldest entry in this list occurring in 1853 and the newest in 2004. From New Zealand to Japan, this list of train derailments around the world shows that human error and the unpredictability of nature can quickly change a routine ride into a tragedy causing injuries and death. 

While the deadliest train accidents of all time were unspeakable tragedies, they also helped make railroads and trains a little safer as public outcry often led to advances in technology. Safety regulations and technological advancements are always improving in order to reduce train accident deaths and fatal train derailments

Photo: National Transportation Safety Board / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • 2004 Sri Lanka Tsunami

    Date: December, 26, 2004

    Location: Telwatta, Sri Lanka

    Casualties: Estimated 1,700

    Cause: Tsunami waves

    A train named Queen of the Sea left Sri Lanka's Colombo Fort Station on December 26, 2004. The train was two hours into its trip to Galle when tragedy struck. A tsunami blasted through the trees as Queen of the Sea traveled through Telwatta. 

    There were an estimated 1,500 paying passengers on board based on ticket sales, plus an estimated 200 people who had snuck aboard at various stops. There were only a few survivors and many bodies were never recovered or identified. 

  • 1981 Bihar Derailment

    Date: June 6, 1981

    Location: Bihar, India

    Casualties: 250 confirmed, but an estimated 800 killed

    Cause: Wet rails and/or a cow

    The cause of this train derailment in Bihar, India remains a mystery as there are conflicting accounts. Inclement weather was battering the region, causing some sources to speculate that a cyclone blew the train from the tracks. Other sources cite wet rails and the conductor's decision to brake in order to avoid a cow that had wandered onto the tracks as the cause of the accident. Whatever the reason, the train was carrying around 1,000 passengers when it plunged into the Bihar River, injuring more than 100 of them and killing somewhere between 600 and 800 people, making it one of the worst railway disasters in India.

  • 1917 Ciurea Station, Romania

    Date: January 13, 1917

    Location: Ciurea, Romania

    Casualties: Estimated 1,000

    Cause: Unknown, but possibly brake damage from overcrowding 

    Due to a lack of investigation into the accident because of wartime secrecy, no one knows what precisely caused this derailment or the final death toll. Romania had just entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers and both Romanian citizens and Russian soldiers boarded a train to escape the advancing German army. It was believed that the train was overloaded - a regular occurrence during World War I - and that the extra weight damaged the brakes from passengers stepping on them. The train derailed, crashed, and caught fire after allegedly speeding up during a descent and failing to brake. 

  • 1917 Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne Derailment
    Photo: Florian Pépellin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    1917 Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne Derailment

    Date: December 12, 1917

    Location: Modane, France

    Casualties: Over 700 

    Cause: Excessive speed, over capacity, brake failure

    French troops were were traveling home during World War I from Italy when the accident occurred. Due to a locomotive shortage at the time, two trains were combined into one 19-car train, powered by a single engine. While traveling at a high speed, the brakes on the train stopped working while traveling into a valley. The train derailed and caught fire, killing most of the soldiers onboard.

  • 1915 Carranza's Military Train

    Date: January 22, 1915

    Location: Guadalajara, Mexico

    Casualties: Estimated 600

    Cause: Loss of control

    The families of soldiers fighting in the Mexican Revolution were loaded into a train in Colima, Mexico. President Venustiano Carranza had ordered them transferred to Guadalajara due to the war. Per president Carranza's wishes, a 20-car train was filled well beyond its safe capacity. Reportedly there were travelers hanging from the roof and the bottom of the train. The train began a steep descent during the journey and the conductor was unable to control it as it plunged into a ravine.  

  • 1989 Ufa Train Disaster

    Date: June 4, 1989

    Location: Ural Mountains, Soviet Union

    Casualties: 575

    Cause: Natural gas explosion

    In a strange convergence of events, a natural gas pipeline caused two passenger trains to explode off of the tracks. The pipeline had unusually low pressure, but pipeline workers chose to add more gas into the situation instead of shutting off the line and finding the leak. The natural gas gathered on the train tracks and ignited when the two trains created a spark as they passed. The explosion derailed several cars from each train and damaged the surrounding forests, with much foliage being completely incinerated. 

    Windows in a nearby town shattered, trees were incinerated, and hundreds of passengers traveling died while many others suffered severe burns. Helicopters were used to move victims to the hospital for treatment. An estimated 575 victims lost their lies, but most bodies were hardly recognizable. An official death count has never been verified.