Balvano train disaster

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In the Balvano train disaster of 2/3 March 1944, some 426 people illegally riding a steam-hauled freight train died of carbon monoxide poisoning when the train stalled on a steep gradient in the Armi tunnel.[1] The accident occurred in southern Italy, near Balvano (Basilicata).


Naples suffered severe wartime shortages, encouraging an extensive black market. By 1944, the Allies had already defeated the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Opportunists in the city began bartering fresh produce for commodities brought by servicemen, and stowed away on freight trains to reach their suppliers' farms. The railway companies also experienced shortages of good quality coal. The burning of low grade substitutes produced a large volume of odorless, poisonous carbon monoxide gas, a critical factor of the ensuing disaster.

The accident[edit]

Just after 6 p.m. on 2 March 1944 the freight train 8017, reached Eboli, beyond Battipaglia. At about 11:40 p.m. the train carried many illegal passengers. The tunnel was graded steeply and the freight train grossly overloaded with its passengers. The train stalled with almost all the cars inside the tunnel. The passengers and crew were overcome by the smoke and fumes so slowly that they failed to notice the dangers. Most of the few survivors were in the last few cars which were still in the open air. Much carbon monoxide gas was produced as a by-product of combustion, and carbon monoxide poisoning is a well recognized danger when machines are used, or fires occur in enclosed environments. It combines with haemoglobin when inhaled, so the victim dies of anoxia (lack of oxygen). It is still the principal cause of death in mine disasters after a fire or explosion.


The committee did not note any responsibility for the incident, which was considered a disaster. However hypotheses were stated for some minor infractions:

The train would have to be stopped in Battipaglia despite that the two locomotives were nominally sufficient for towing, and should have been put in order with the new regulations; It was also known that the coal supplied was not able to develop sufficient power to maintain the maximum performance of the machines.

Concerns were raised about the timeliness of aid and the work of the station masters of Balvano and Bella-Muro, who quickly determined the location of the train when it appeared late on the roadmap. However in the post-war confusion was normal communications were intermittent, and trains could be greatly delayed. It was not uncommon that it would take over two hours to travel 7 km.

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:[2]

"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 formation of the train came straight from the Allied Command, and that in any case the station staff and train could not stop the train and modify it. The same command organized a train to check the condition of the incident, with staff equipped with oxygen masks, which took over the actual development of abnormal amounts of toxic gases.

The railways declined all responsibility, claiming that on that due to the complicated situation of the balance of powers between the Italian authorities and the US command, they could even immediately determine who had the responsibility for the management of that particular route. However, at that time, between Naples and Potenza, there was only a report for travelers, that the train 8021, left from Naples twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Treasury sanctioned the issue of compensation as if they were war victims (compensation that was paid after more than 15 years).

However, some sources indicates that many of the passengers on the train were in possession of a valid train ticket, which they meant they then qualified as passengers and not as illegal. Whether this matter, which implies the possibility of requiring substantial compensation, would have been passed over in silence during the official investigations into the tragedy. In any case, official sources refer to those who were on the train, except railway staff, only the term "illegal immigrants". This position is supported by the fact that the train was classified as "goods" and therefore not authorized to carry paying passengers.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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

La Galleria delle Armi by Salvio Esposito of Marotta&Cafiero Editore (Naples 3 March 2012 - Italy)


  1. ^ Railroad Disaster on the Balvano
  2. ^ "The Corriere della Sera - Salerno". March 23, 1944. 

Coordinates: 40°40′09″N 15°30′07″E / 40.66917°N 15.50194°E / 40.66917; 15.50194