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High Speed Rail Safety

High speed rail is one of the safest modes of transportation anywhere-- don't let the pictures here fool you into thinking otherwise. The safety figures for the TGV system are exceptional; there have been no fatalities in high speed operation, ever since service started in 1981. Today TGV trains accumulate on the order of 10 million passenger-km per year on the high speed lines alone.

TGV operations fall into two categories: operations on dedicated, TGV-only high speed lines, and operation in mixed traffic on conventional lines. Indeed, of the total trackage served by TGV trains only about 25% (by route kilometer) is high speed ligne à grande vitesse. In understanding the incident summaries below, it is important to bear this distinction in mind. Most of the serious incidents have occurred on conventional lines, where TGV trains are exposed to the same external risks as any other train. In other words, high speed operation itself has never been a factor in any fatal incident in the history of the TGV.

About the Incident Summaries...

The summaries below are not comprehensive. Most of the "major" incidents are described, but there have been others:

On high speed lines
- An aerodynamic fairing lost due to incorrect maintenance, that broke a window and injured a passenger
- At least five strikes of animals on the track
- At least two fires, one in a baggage compartment and the other in a power unit
- At least two incidents in which a passenger door opened at speed
- One instance of concrete placed on the track
- One instance of an attempted terrorist bombing of the track
On conventional lines
- A passenger killed trying to board a moving train
- A conductor killed trying to board a moving train
- A passenger injured on a platform by a broken shock absorber
- A broken tripod (transmission component)
- A collision due to operator error during a switching move
- An arson attack on an empty parked trainset
- Two instances of operator forgetting to set the parking brake, resulting in low-speed collisions with fixed objects.

The list above together with the summaries below form a complete history of major TGV incidents, to the best of the author's knowledge.

05 January 2001: Derailment

Trainset involved: Atlantique, unknown
Service: 8720, Brest - Paris
Location: Standard line near Laval (Mayenne)
Injuries: none.

Following a winter storm, a mudslide covered the tracks. The engineer/driver of the 6:49 AM TGV out of Brest, headed for Paris, saw the slide about 300 m ahead and was able to slow to 120 km/h before hitting the mud. A minor derailment of the power car ensued due to the emergency stop.

05 June 2000: High Speed Derailment

Trainset involved: Eurostar 3101/3102
Service: 9047, Paris - London
Location: LGV Nord Europe, near Croisilles (10 km south of Arras)
Injuries: 14, slight

Photo: Associated Press

Belgian trainset 3101-3102 was covering Eurostar 9047 (Paris to London), travelling northbound on track 1 of the LGV Nord high speed line at 300 km/h with 501 passengers on board. The engineer detected an anomalous vibration and reduced speed to 200 km/h, before resuming full speed a short time afterwards. At 5:54 PM local time as the trainset passed 290 km/h near the small town of Croisilles (a bit south of Arras), at the level of the track switch for the link to Arras, a transmission assembly failed. A reaction link on the rear bogie of the leading power car became separated from the bogie frame, leading to catastrophic failure of the transmission assembly with parts impacting the track. The failure and ensuing emergency stop caused the failed bogie 2 (numbered from the front), bogie 3 and bogie 23 on the trailing power car to leave the rails. The partly derailed train came to a stop safely 1500 m further, causing some damage to the track. 14 people including the British engineer were treated for light injuries or shock, and passengers resumed their trip to London on busses. Once again, as in the 1993 TGV derailment, the articulated trainset architecture was credited with maintaining stability and integrity of the train as it came to a stop. How closely disaster was averted is again debatable. While the train remained mostly aligned on the trackbed, it was a matter of luck that it did not foul track 2.

The photo shows Eurostar power car 3102 (the front of the train).

28 November 1998: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: Atlantique, unknown
Service: unknown, Brest to Paris
Location: Grade crossing 303, near Guipavas (29)
Injuries: none

Photo: Eugene Le Droff/Le Telegramme

On a day when rail workers were on strike, a double TGV trainset that had left Brest at 8:54 AM struck a stranded semi-truck/lorry just 8 minutes into its journey near Guipavas. The 23 year-old driver of the truck jumped out of the way and escaped uninjured after losing his way and getting stuck on the crossing while attempting to turn around. Travelling at less than 120 km/h (75 mph) the TGV struck and destroyed the vehicle, throwing debris onto a waiting car whose occupant also escaped unharmed. The lead power unit sustained heavy damage (see photo).

9 May 1998: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: 4345 (Thalys PBKA)
Service: train 9344, Amsterdam to Paris
Location: near Hoeven, southern Netherlands
Injuries: 6, slight

Photo: Arie Kievit/Volkskrant

A truck attempted to cross the tracks at an unprotected grade crossing when the train arrived. The truck driver was killed in the impact and the train's power unit and first two trailers derailed. The trainset was heavily damaged. Six passengers were injured and tracks and catenary were damaged in the incident. The photo shows the damage to trailers R1 and R2, which had to be scrapped. The trainset was later repaired with the R1 and R2 trailers from TGV trainset 502, involved in the 25 September 1997 accident.

19 November 1997: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: Atlantique, unknown
Service: Brest to Paris, unknown
Location: D140 road at Neau, near Laval
Injuries: 6, slight

Photo: Valéry Hache (AFP)

A tractor-trailer combination carrying a load of calcium carbonate became disabled on a grade crossing. The driver was able to escape from the vehcile before the train hit it at 140 km/h, derailing one bogie and damaging tracks and catenary.

11 October 1997: Fire

Trainset involved: PSE, 15 (or 45?)
Service: train 644, Lyon to Paris
Location: near Montchanin, LGV Sud-Est high speed line
Injuries: none

Photo: AFP

The train developed a fire in the engine compartment. An emergency stop was performed, and fire services began extinguishing the blaze a half hour later. The fire was confined to the leading power unit of the double trainset formation. The unit involved was a recently renovated PSE set, although it is unknown if this was a factor. The 621 passengers were transferred to another trainset and experienced a five hour delay.

25 September 1997: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: 502 (Réseau)
Service: train 7119, Paris to Dunkerque
Location: Bierne, 10 km south of Dunkerque
Injuries: 7, slight

Photo 1: Pascal Rossignol (Reuters)

Photo 2: Pascal Rossignol (Reuters)

Photo 3: Dernieres Nouvelles D'Alsace

Photo 4: LCI Television

Synopsis: An asphalt paving machine became stranded on a grade crossing near Bergues. TGV 7119, running 80 minutes late because of a strike, hit the machine at 130 km/h (81 mph). The leading power unit left the rails, spun around to the left, and came to rest on its side down the track embankment. The engineer suffered minor injuries, and the unit was destroyed. Four trailers derailed and two left the track bed. None of them rolled over thanks to the articulated design of the train; very few passengers were injured.

Trainset 502 was withdrawn from service and stored. The trailing power unit serves as a spare, and trailers R1 and R2 may be used to repair Thalys 4345, involved in the May 1998 grade crossing collision.

Photo 1 is a view of the crash site looking northbound. Photo 2 shows the unit's nose after the crash. The rectangular impact shield is visible, and nothing remains of the nose shrouding. Photo 3 shows the rear of the unit, with its roof broken open. Photo 4 is an aerial view of the wreck, with the power unit at left (between the yellow crane and the trailer), and the first two trailers in the woods.

10 August 1995: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: 394 (Atlantique)
Service: train 8737, Paris to Brest
Location: Near Vitré, Kilometer post 342, PN 172 grade crossing with road D34
Injuries: 2, slight

Photo: David Adémas (Ouest France)

Synopsis: A tractor-trailer combination with farm equipment became stuck on the grade crossing in a relatively tight, canted curve of the Paris-Brest line. The automatic crossing gates came down and the train, approaching at 140 km/h (87 mph), hit the unoccupied vehicle. The train did not derail and came to a stop about 1.6 km after the impact following an emergency brake application. Damage was limited to the nose of trainset 394, as well as a catenary mast and grade crossing gates.

21 December 1993: High Speed Derailment

Trainset involved: 511 (Réseau)
Service: train 7150, Valenciennes to Paris
Location: TGV Haute Picardie station, Kilometer post 110.5, LGV Nord (Paris-Lille) high speed line
Injuries: One, slight

Photo: Jean-Marie Hervio / Le Parisien Libéré

Synopsis: This was probably the most spectacular accident involving a TGV, and set a record for the world's fastest derailment. It occured before the TGV Haute Picardie station was built, near the southern end of where the platforms are located today. After a period of heavy rains, a large sink hole opened under track 2 (southbound). Two trains had already passed this spot and detected no anomaly, as late as 10 minutes before the accident. At 7:06, TGV 7150 was bearing down at 294 km/h (182 mph) on a muddy hole 7 meters long by 4 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep, bridged by a section of unsupported track (see picture above). The engineer felt a slight bump and made a service brake application. The last four trailers and the rear power unit derailed, and the train came to a rocky stop over a distance of 2.3 kilometers (somewhat less than it takes for a conventional emergency stop). It was fortunate that the train did not jackknife or leave the track bed; this is credited in part to the stiffness that the articulated design lends to the train. Only one passenger was injured, and another treated for shock. The sinkhole was traced to unstable terrain beneath the track bed, possibly caused by galleries and trenches from World War 1. How closely a disaster was averted is a matter of debate; however, the trackbed has since been carefully inspected to prevent similar occurences in the future.

14 December 1992: High Speed Derailment

Trainset involved: PSE, unknown
Service: train 920, Annecy to Paris
Location: Mâcon-Loché TGV station, Kilometer post 334, LGV Sud-Est high speed line
Injuries: 27, slight

Synopsis: The accident trainset had been involved in an emergency stop previously, which resulted in a significant wheel flat. At 7:33 AM, the flat spot caused one bogie of the trainset to derail as it passed through the Mâcon-Loché station at 270 km/h (168 mph). Projections of ballast stones caused injuries to people standing on the station platform waiting for train 970. The train came to a stop safely.

23 September 1988: Grade Crossing Accident

Trainset involved: 70 (PSE)
Service: train 736, Grenoble to Paris
Location: PN 74, Voiron
Injuries: 2 dead, 60 injured

Synopsis: A special road transport with a weight of 80 tons became stranded on grade crossing 74. Train 736, rounding a curve toward the crossing, plowed into it at 110 km/h (68 mph). The large mass of the road vehicle made this crash much worse than it might otherwise have been; the engineer and one passenger died, and many more were injured when the first trailer was ripped open by debris. Only the leading power unit derailed. This wreck, the most violent to date, became a reference for the design and crash testing of safety features for the next generation of TGV, as embodied by today's Duplex trainsets. These newer trains have several deformable sections, at the front and rear of the power unit and at the front of the first trailer, to manage and absorb crash energy without damage to passenger compartments. Trainset 70 was never returned to service, and the trailing unit 23140 became a spare in the PSE fleet.

31 December 1983: Terrorist Bombing

Trainset involved: PSE, unknown
Service: Marseille to Paris, unknown
Location: Near Tain-l'Hermitage, south of Lyon in the Rhône Valley
Injuries: See below

Photo: APIAV

Synopsis: The bomb was placed in a luggage rack in a trailer vestibule. It exploded at about the same time as another bomb which was placed in a baggage locker in the Marseille St-Charles station. The toll from both bombs totalled 5 dead and 50 injured. Both bombs were the work of the famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

Sources: Chemins de Fer, La Vie du Rail, TF1 television, Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, US Federal Railroad Administration, etc.

Last Update: June 2000

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