A runaway disaster

An Irishman’s Diary about the Armagh railway tragedy

“Seeing the approach of the runaway cars, the driver managed to slow his engine almost to a stop. But the collision still shattered the rearmost carriages of the excursion train, hurtling debris down the steep embankments on either side. The eventual death toll was 88, half of them children or teenagers.” Photograph: Courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland

“Seeing the approach of the runaway cars, the driver managed to slow his engine almost to a stop. But the collision still shattered the rearmost carriages of the excursion train, hurtling debris down the steep embankments on either side. The eventual death toll was 88, half of them children or teenagers.” Photograph: Courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 13:06

Exactly 125 years ago this morning, a packed excursion train left Armagh railway station carrying more than 900 passengers, many of them pupils from a Sunday school, on a pleasure trip to Warrenpoint.

The route, long since closed, involved a steep climb for the first 2½ miles. And it was later claimed that the engine was sufficient for the job – if only just – had it been handled properly. In the event, having laboured to pull the 15 cars up most of the incline, it stalled within sight of the top.

The sensible thing then would have been to wait for the following train, a scheduled service 20 minutes later, which could have pushed the one in front gently over the hill. Instead, the chief clerk, a Mr Elliot, decided to split the excursion train, with the engine bringing the front five cars on to Hamiltonsbawn station (five was all the siding there could cope with) and then returning for the rest.

The subsequent disaster was precipitated when, having uncoupled from the rear carriages, the engine first lurched backwards slightly before resuming its journey. The effect was enough to overwhelm the brakes on the 10 cars left behind.

As the cars began to reverse, a desperate brakeman tried to force a last turn of the brake handle, urged on by Elliot. It was no use. And according to evidence given at the official inquiry, the chief clerk’s reaction was less than heroic. In the brakeman’s words: “He then said, ‘Oh my God, we will all be killed’, and jumped off.”

The 10 cars ran two miles down the hill, accelerating to 40 miles per hour. The following train, meanwhile, had left the station after the prescribed safety interval.

Seeing the approach of the runaway cars, the driver managed to slow his engine almost to a stop. But the collision still shattered the rearmost carriages of the excursion train, hurtling debris down the steep embankments on either side. The eventual death toll was 88, half of them children or teenagers.

Reporting from Armagh later, The Irish Times described a city “bowed and literally crushed tonight by the weight of this terrible calamity”. The writer added: “In some cases, whole families have been obliterated – father and children, men, boys, and girls. The vast majority of those killed and maimed belong to Armagh itself so that [there is] not a street but is in mourning.”

The tragedy was all the worse for being avoidable. There had long been concern about the inadequacy of the simple brake system used on that and most trains, while the “continuous automatic” system that would soon become standard was already available and used elsewhere.

But human misjudgements also played a big part. Blame was exchanged between Armagh and the railway yards at Dundalk, from which the engine and its inexperienced driver had been dispatched. In the end, none of six officials who faced charges was found culpable. A jury could not agree even about Elliot’s role. He was acquitted in a retrial.

It was Europe’s worst railway accident at the time, and remains the deadliest in Ireland. And yet only now is Armagh getting around to creating a permanent memorial.

Transport Minister Danny Kennedy will today unveil a sculpture by Mayo artist Rory Breslin, whose previous commissions include the Michael Davitt statue in Straide and an installation at Kilmainham Gaol. Erected on the city Mall, his Armagh piece will be a bronze, life-sized sculpture of a girl on a limestone plinth with the names of victims inscribed.

Physical monuments aside, however, the disaster did leave a much more immediate legacy, to the benefit of future generations of rail travellers. It was the Regulation of Railways Act, 1889, which, enforcing the use of continuous automatic braking, while also reforming signal protocols, was rushed through parliament that summer. The legislation also marked a watershed for government intervention in the railway system, which until then had successfully argued that it be left to self-regulate on operational matters.

As the Oxford Companion to British Railway History summed up: “With an ill grace and some shuffling, the companies implemented the act [whereupon] serious incidents caused by inadequate braking ceased [...] Here was the most striking example of the direct intervention of the state in the working of British railways in the 19th century, and it proved entirely beneficent.”

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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