The Fate of the Black Market Express
The Black Market Express
By 1944 the Second World War had led many people across Europe to suffer severe difficulties, including near starvation in some places due to rationing of scarce supplies. In Naples, southern Italy, the only way that local people could get enough to eat was by buying food obtained via a flourishing black market.
Every Thursday night train 8017 left Naples for the inland town of Potenza, where food was more plentiful. Many of the passengers were black marketeers who took quantities of cigarettes and other items with them to trade the following day with local farmers who could supply meat, eggs and milk. This trade was illegal, but the authorities were willing to let it happen for the sake of keeping people alive.
The train was therefore known as the “Black Market Express”.
On 2nd March 1944 there was a problem with train 8017 because the overhead electric wires had been brought down at a point along the route. The alternative was to use steam locomotives, and two of these therefore hauled four passenger carriages (carrying 521 passengers) and 42 goods wagons. This was always going to be difficult, given the steep gradients to be faced as the train wound its way into the mountains and the possibility of ice forming on exposed rails.
After travelling some 60 miles the train stopped at Balvano to take on water for the locomotives. The next station along the line, through which the train would pass without stopping, was Bela-Muro, only four miles away on the other side of a long tunnel at Galleria delle Armi.
The normal procedure was for the staff at Bela-Muro to send a signal to Balvano to say that the train had passed through and it was therefore safe to send the next train along. At this time of night (gone 2 a.m.) this was a mere formality, because the next train was not due for another hour.
However, when the signal from Bela-Muro had not come through by the time that the following train reached Balvano, stationmaster Giuseppe Salonia became very concerned. He decided to check for himself what was going on by getting the driver of the waiting train to detach his loco and take him up the track in pursuit of train 8017.
They had not gone far when they saw a man running towards them swinging a lantern in his hand. They stopped their loco and heard the man say: “They’re all dead”.
The Extent of the Disaster
The man was Michele Palo, who was the brakeman of train 8017, riding in the brake van at the rear of the train, after the 42 goods wagons. His story was that the train had entered the tunnel but stopped with just the brake van left in the open. He assumed that there had been a red signal in the tunnel, but became concerned when the delay became extreme. Eventually he got down from his van and walked up the tunnel. When he reached the passenger coaches he climbed back up and saw nothing but dead bodies.
Stationmaster Salonia wanted to see for himself, so he retraced Michele Palo’s route and confirmed the latter’s story. There was seemingly nobody alive in any of the carriages, and the same was true of the train crew. The lead driver was still standing, leaning against the window but undeniably dead.
Salonia uncoupled the carriages and trucks from the locos, coupled his own loco at the rear, and took the lot back to Balvano. When the carriages were examined it became clear that the death toll was very close to 100%. One man survived because he had left the train briefly at Balvano for a breath of fresh air and so was not asleep when it stopped in the tunnel not long after continuing its journey. Another man survived but suffered brain damage.
So What Happened to Train 8017?
The problem was ice on the track and not enough power in the engines. When the train ground to a halt in the tunnel, the train crew simply piled more coal into the fireboxes in the hope of getting more steam to the pistons. The coal they were using, due to wartime restrictions, was low quality stuff that produced less heat and much more carbon monoxide when it burned. In the confined space of the tunnel, the deadly gas had nowhere to go but into the lungs of everyone on board the train, hence the catastrophic result.
Because of the war, strict censorship was applied to the incident and it was seven years before the full story became known to the public at large.