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November 3, 2012


Couronnes Métro Disaster 1903

by soundlandscapes

THE PARIS MÉTRO comprises 14 lines, some 300 stations and 201.8 kilometres of track. At any one time there are around 540 trains travelling on the system, and at busy times even more, carrying around 5 million passengers every day. Despite the density of the traffic, the Paris Métro is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world.

Nevertheless, there have been two major disasters on the Paris Métro, one in 1943 when an allied bombing raid blew the roof off the station at Porte Saint-Cloud killing 403 people who where sheltering there and another in 1903 when a fire killed 84 people, most of them at Couronnes station – and it is the story of the Couronnes disaster that I want to tell.

Couronnes Métro station is much like any other station on Line 2 of the Paris Métro system. It’s a fairly busy station with a classic Hector Guimard entourage entrance leading down to the ticket hall and the entrance to the trains. At Couronnes, the trains run underground.

The construction of Line 2 began in 1900. It was built in stages and, by April 1903, the Line 2 that we know today, stretching from Porte Dauphine to Nation, was completed. At 12.4 km in length, just over 2 km of the line was built on an elevated section with four stations. One of these aerial stations, Barbès-Rochechouart, or Boulevard Barbès as it was known in 1903, was where the seeds of the disaster were sown.

The aerial Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) Métro station today

Sounds of Barbès-Rochechouart station today:

In 1903, Métro trains were largely made of wood and operated as four-car units. At busy times, two four-car units could be coupled together to make an eight-car unit. All the power for both the four-car and eight-car units was routed through the front car via shoes that connected the motor to the ‘live’ rail.

At just before 7.00 pm on the evening of Monday, 10th August, 1903, just a little over four months after the completion of Line 2, a train entered Boulevard Barbès station with heavy smoke billowing from one of the motors of the front car. The passengers were evacuated from the train onto the platform, the power to the motor was disconnected by raising the shoes, and the burning subsided.

With the urgent need to clear the line at Boulevard Barbès and probably against a chorus of frustrated passengers anxious to be on their way, the staff decided to move the train. They reconnected the power and allowed the train to descend into the tunnel ahead. What they hadn’t realised was that the fire was not simply a case of the train motor overheating it was in fact a short circuit which was bound to cause further trouble. And so it proved.

The burning returned although the train made it as far as the station Combat (now called Colonel Fabian) before the driver stopped for help. The power was once again disconnected and the burning subsided but when the power was reconnected it began again. It became clear that the only way to move the train any further was to use another train to push it.

Meanwhile, the passengers from the stricken train were still at the Boulevard Barbès station.

Passengers waiting at Barbès-Rochechouart (formerly Boulevard Barbès) today

Presently, a four-car train arrived and the passengers piled on. This train took them as far as the Rue d’Allemagne (now called Jaures) station where they again disembarked. As their now empty train moved on to Combat to join up with the stricken train another four-car train arrived at the Rue d’Allemagne and the frustrated passengers boarded that already overcrowded train.

Up ahead, the stricken train was being pushed by the empty four-car train. This combination was being driven by the motor in the four-car train at the rear but the short-circuited motor on the stricken train was still live and by now burning again.

The combination of trains arrived at Couronnes and the following train complete with passengers was close on its heels.

Couronnes station today – Most of the deaths occurred on the platform on the right

The motor on the leading train combination was by this time well on fire but instead of continuing into the tunnel ahead, the driver stopped the train halfway along the platform. The train with the passengers pulled up behind. The passengers were once again told to get off their train. Understandably perhaps, their frustration boiled over and some passengers refused to get off whilst others began an altercation with the staff  – but by then it was too late. The stricken train moved off into the tunnel ahead and travelled to the next station, Ménilmontant, by which time the fire had got out of control. The fire destroyed the electrical circuit supplying the Couronnes station lighting and the station was plunged into darkness just as a cloud of dense black smoke appeared out of the tunnel ahead. Chaos ensued as people scrambled for the exits which many couldn’t find. Some survived but many did not. In total, eighty-four people died, seven at Ménilmontant and the rest at Couronnes.

Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.

The news of the disaster was greeted with shock and crowds gathered as the bodies of the victims were evacuated from the stricken station.

Evacuating the bodies – Carte Postale Ancienne. Source CPArama.

Sounds of Couronnes station today:

Within days of the disaster, measures were put in place to ensure that events like this could never happen again.

As I said at the beginning, the Paris Métro today is considered to be one of the safest public transport systems in the world.  Long may it continue.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 4 2012

    Really great journalism, with history meeting the sounds of the present day. I wonder if this story is still strong in the minds of Parisians?

    • Nov 6 2012

      Thanks Jay. I suspect that few passengers passing through Couronnes station today either know or think about this disaster. It did though have a profound effect on the safety of the Métro. So if the current passengers don’t think about it, they certainly feel the effects of it.

  2. Dec 4 2012

    It’s amazing that back then the very first thing on commuters’ minds seemed not to be to get onto street level as quickly as possible. I also find it intriguing that in contrast to the Paris Metro, most of the major incidents on the London Underground in the past were related to collisions.

  3. Dec 30 2012

    This is an amazing post! I had no idea this happened.

    I just returned to the US after four years of living in Paris. I lived near M° Jaurès. I used to go to the Couronnes station often between 2009 and 2011 because my yoga class was nearby — I stood on that platform many times. I never knew there were possibly the ghosts of those who died in such a terrible accident.

    I am very thankful for the safety measures that were put into place as a result. The Paris Métro is incredibly safe, and I always felt secure on it (except for the occasional drunks and one SDF in particular who had soiled himself on the car on Line 3. Ugh. I’ll take that over disaster, though).

    I could not bring myself to listen to the recordings, yet. I miss Paris and I know it will make me cry, and I don’t want to at the moment! But I certainly will. I am following now, and I think this is an incredible project!

    Just FYI, my husband, who is still living in Paris (long story) has a blog on WordPress called “Paris By Cell Phone.” Check it out, if you feel an inclination, and want to have another potential follower. He’s good about reciprocity with people who take time to comment on his blog!

    Oh yes, I got here because another Paris blogger with whom I am connected on Facebook posted about the old station entrance at M° Bastille. I wanted more info, so I Googled it. For some reason, Google image search picked up one of the photos in this post, and I was curious, so I came to visit. I am so glad for this serendipity. This post, while tragic and sad, really is also quite interesting, and very well-composed. Thank you!

    Bonne journée!


    • Dec 30 2012

      P.S. Oh! I see you have Paris (Im)perfect linked in your blogroll. Sion is one of my dear friends in Paris. 🙂 And Forest Collins of 52 Martinis, too! She is a hoot.

      Hey — you should try to find Katia of The France Project. She is a podcaster who loves to interview people about what it is that they do in Paris and this would be a great project for her to share. If you want to share, that is! I’ll let her know I found your blog and perhaps you guys could connect, if it is mutually-beneficial. 🙂

      • Dec 30 2012

        Yes, I know both Sion and Forest. If you would like to listen to Forest speaking you might like to take a look at this: I’m sure it will back many happy memories for you. Thanks for the intro to Katia at The France project, I’ll contact her and mention your name.

      • Dec 30 2012

        I already left a little post on Katia’s “The France Project” Facebook wall. Katia interviewed Forest as well a while back for another project she had going on the past few years. I’ll definitely check out yours! 🙂

    • Dec 30 2012

      Thanks Karin. I’m so pleased that you like what you’ve found here and thanks for following me. Since you used to live near the Jaures Métro station you will be pleased to know that I shall be publishing a piece about it in the coming weeks.

      As for Couronnes, it was a terrible disaster but the lessons were learned almost immediately and nothing like it has happened since. I doubt that most of the people who use the station today have any idea of what happened there in 1903 but, part of the magic of this wonderful city is that there many hidden stories that underpin everyday life. Finding them is like uncovering hidden treasure.

      I shall look up ‘Paris by Cell Phone’ – thanks for the tip.

      I do hope it won’t be too long before you return to Paris and, in the meantime, I wish you bonne année et bonne santé and all you wish for yourself in 2013.

  4. Jan 1 2013

    Since you used to live near the Jaures Métro station you will be pleased to know that I shall be publishing a piece about it in the coming weeks.

    Yes! Excellent! I will love to see that. I’ll keep my eyes open in my WordPress Reader for it.

    Well, whether I can get back to Paris soon or not remains to be seen, but “I’ll always have Paris.” Thanks to sites like yours with excellent photos and information, I can always feel I am present there.

    One thing that used to bother me a little about Paris is that sometimes it seems stuck in a rut. Now, however, I feel a bit thankful for that! It means that things will not change overmuch, and my memories of the city will likely be much in line with whatever I may encounter in the future. 🙂

    Forest left a really nice comment about her interview with you on the Facebook post I left for Katia. Oh, the small, small world that is Paris expat blogging, haha. Funny that I am half a world away and yet still in contact with a lot of it! 😉

    Happy 2013. See you ’round the bloghood!

  5. Thanks for such a detailed account of this story; I never knew exactly how it played out.

    While not a disaster per se, have you heard about the murder of Laeti­tia Toureaux on the métro in the 1930s? Another intriguing story worth Googling if you’re not already familiar with it.

    Thanks for this great and informative post, I appreciate how you always acknowledge the historical significance of the spots you visit.

    • Jan 10 2013

      Thanks Corey. Yes, I’ve heard of Laetitia Toureaux and her murder on the Métro. At first sight it seems to be the perfect murder for which no-one was ever arrested – or, it could be the perfect cover-up. At any rate, it’s an intriguing story.


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