Armagh Rail Disaster

The Armagh rail disaster happened on 12 June 1889 near Armagh, Ireland when a crowded Sunday school excursion train had to negotiate a steep incline, the steam locomotive was unable to complete the climb and the train stalled.

The train crew decided to divide the train and take forward the front portion, leaving the rear portion on the running line. The rear portion had inadequate brake power and ran back down the gradient, colliding with a following train. At the time it was the worst rail disaster in Europe, and it remains the fourth worst in the United Kingdom. Seventy-eight people were killed and 260 injured, most of them children.

The primary cause of the accident was the inadequacy of the sole hand brake in the rear vehicle to hold the ten vehicles of the detached rear portion of the train stationary on the steep gradient. There was only one brake carriage with a hand brake in this portion, and no continuous automatic brake. The placing of stones behind the wheels of some of the vehicles may be taken as an acknowledgement of this inadequacy. The official enquiry was unable to come to a definite decision as to whether the brake was defective or if passengers who were improperly travelling in the brake compartment had meddled with it; it may be that in desperation they accidentally turned the hand wheel the wrong way, releasing instead of applying it more firmly.

Finally (among the primary causes of the disaster) there was the decision to allow the small engine to attempt the climb without an assisting engine. This was contrary to specific instructions from the locomotive foreman at Dundalk; the inexperienced junior driver at first asked for an assisting engine, but when he did so the Station Master at Armagh told him, "Any driver who comes here does not grumble about taking an excursion train with him", and the driver then agreed to attempt the climb unassisted.

The effects of the collision were most disastrous, the rear three vehicles of the excursion train being completely destroyed, their debris being thrown principally to the right of the direction in which they had been running, down the slope of an embankment (about 46 1/2 high) on which the railway is here carried. On the collision occurring, the engine of the ordinary train-which consisted of engine and tender, horse box, brake van, three carriages, and third class brake van, fitted with the non-automatic vacuum brake-was separated from its tender and thrown over to the right upon its
right side (left wheels uppermost) on to the top of the slope of the embankment. The rear five vehicles broke away from the horse box, ran back down the incline, and were stopped by the guard in the rear brake van applying his hand brake after they had run back about a quarter of a mile. The tender and horse box also ran back and were stopped by the driver-who, upon the crash occurring had turned round and was holding on by the tender coal plate-applying the tender hand brake (which had remained in working order) a few carriage lengths short of the rear five vehicles.