Balvano train disaster

The Balvano train disaster was the deadliest railway accident in Italian history and one of the worst railway disasters ever.[1][2] It occurred on the night between 2-3 March 1944 in Balvano, Italy. Over 500 people in a steam-hauled, coal-burning freight train died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a protracted stall in a tunnel.[3]

Balvano train disaster
Some of the corpses gathered in the Balvano railway station
Date3 March 1944
after 00:50
LocationBalvano, Basilicata
LineBattipaglia–Metaponto railway
OperatorFerrovie dello Stato
Incident typeCarbon monoxide poisoning
Causeexcessive weight; bad quality coal; lack of natural ventilation in the tunnel
Deaths517 (official figure by Italian Government)
Injuries90 poisoned


In 1943, Axis Italy was invaded by American and Imperial forces, and the south-part of the peninsula (almost fully conquered by Allied forces) suffered severe wartime shortages, encouraging an extensive black market. People in large cities like Naples began bartering fresh produce for commodities brought by servicemen, and stowed away on freight trains to reach their suppliers' farms.

The railway companies also suffered shortages of finest-quality coal. The burning of low-grade substitutes developed a reduced power output and produced a large volume of carbon monoxide, an odorless and poisonous gas, a particularly severe problem in Italy's railway network, which crosses mostly mountainous land, and hence makes large use of tunnels with steep inclines of up to 3.5%.


At 19:00 on 2 March 1944 the freight train 8017 started from Battipaglia heading to Potenza on the Battipaglia–Metaponto railway. The train, hauled by two locomotives (the 480.016 followed by the 476.058), had a mass of 520 tonnes and also carried many illegal passengers, making it grossly overloaded. In Eboli some passengers were forced off, but more boarded on following stops. At 00:50 the train left the station at Balvano, the last one before the disaster.

On the steeply graded Armi tunnel the train stalled with almost all the cars inside the tunnel, and the passengers and crew were asphyxiated by the carbon monoxideladen smoke, overcome so slowly that they failed to realize what was happening to them. Most died in their sleep. Of the few survivors most were in the last few cars, which were still in the open air. Rescuers later found that the driver of the 480.017 locomotive had tried to restart the train in the forward direction, while the driver of the 476.058 locomotive at some point tried to engage the reverse gear in attempt to exit the tunnel; the two drivers were unable to communicate because the 476 was an Austrian-built locomotive with right-hand drive, while the 480 had left-hand drive.

At 05:10 the Balvano station master learned of the disaster from last car's brakeman, who had walked back to the station. At 05:25 a locomotive reached the site but the many corpses on the track prevented it from removing the train from the tunnel; only some forty survivors in the last cars could be assisted. At 08:40 a second rescue team arrived. Among the crew, only the one brakeman, and the second locomotive's fireman, survived.

Due to the large number of corpses, the wartime lack of resources, and the poverty of many of the victims, most of the dead were buried without religious service in four common graves at the Balvano cemetery.


The committee did not note any responsibility for the incident, which was considered as caused by force majeure. However, hypotheses were stated for some minor infractions: the train should not have received authorisation to start from Battipaglia even if the two locomotives were nominally sufficient for towing, as it was known that the coal supplied was not able to develop sufficient power to maintain the maximum performance of the machines, and the train should have been put in order with some new regulations.

Concerns were raised about the timeliness of aid and the actions undertaken by the station masters of Balvano and Bella-Muro, who did not act to determine the location of the train when it appeared late on the roadmap. However, in the post-war confusion it was usual for communications to be irregular, and trains could be greatly delayed. It was not uncommon that it would take over two hours to travel the mountainous 7 km between the two stations.

Initially it was also assumed that the drivers had not properly regulated sand boxes, which could prevent wheel spin.

Finally, the catastrophe was attributed mainly to:[4]

A combination of material causes, such as dense fog, atmospheric haze, complete lack of wind, which did not keep the natural ventilation of the tunnel, wet rails, etc., causes that unfortunately occurred all at once and in rapid succession. The train stopped because of the fact that it slid on the rails and the staff of the machines had been overwhelmed by the produced gas, before they could act to move the train out of the tunnel. Due to the presence of carbon monoxide, extraordinarily poisonous, it produced the asphyxiation of stowaways. The action of this gas is so rapid, that the tragedy occurred before any aid could be brought from the outside.

It was noted that the provisions for the composition of the train came straight from the Allied Command, and that in any case the train and station staff could not stop the train and modify it. The Command itself organized a train to check the condition of the disaster, with staff equipped with oxygen masks, which recognized the actual development of abnormal amounts of toxic gases.

Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane declined all responsibility, claiming that in the complex end-of-war set up (where Italian authorities coexisted with the US command) they could not even immediately determine who had the responsibility for the management of one particular train. However the company could be blamed because at that time, despite the high demand on the route between Naples and Potenza, there was only one scheduled passenger train (train 8021), which left from Naples twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which prompted an increase in illegal ridership on freight trains.

In attempt to prevent criticism, the Ministry of Treasury paid compensation to the families of all identified victims as if they were war victims (although it was paid more than 15 years afterwards.)

Regulation changes

After the disaster a limit of 350 tonnes was introduced on the entire line. In addition, for particularly heavy trains requiring two locomotives, a composition of an American diesel locomotive and an Italian steam locomotive was used in place of a double steam drive. Furthermore, at the south exit of the Armi tunnel a permanent guard post was established, which allowed trains to enter the gallery only when exhaust gases from previous trains had cleared.

The guard post remained in place until 1959, when all steam trains were banned from the line. The weight regulations were repealed in 1996, when the line was electrified.

See also


  1. "The world's worst train disasters". Railway Technology. 1 January 2014.
  2. Nick Squires (2 March 2017). "'Titanic of train disasters': Italy finally commemorates hushed-up wartime tragedy that killed more than 600 people". Telegraph. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
  3. "Railroad Disaster on the Balvano". Trivia Library.
  4. "The Corriere della Sera - Salerno". March 23, 1944.

Further reading

  • Barneschi, Gianluca (2005). Balvano 1944: I segreti di un disastro ferroviario ignorato (in Italian). Milano: Mursia. ISBN 88-425-3350-5.
  • Semmens, Peter (1994). Railway Disasters of the World. Patrick Stephens Ltd.

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