The Armagh Rail Disaster of 1889 claimed 88 lives and injured 170 people. The 940 passengers were travelling to Warrenpoint on a day trip organised by Armagh Sunday School.
There was such excitement about the prospect of a trip to the seaside that hundreds of people had bought tickets in advance. To meet this demand, extra carriages were added to the train putting considerable stress on the engine.
The first passengers to arrive were the members of the Sunday school party who marched from the church, dramatically accompanied by the band of the Third Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Once all the passengers had arrived, they were loaded onto the carriages and the carriage doors locked to prevent non-ticketed passengers from boarding. The train then left the station with its passengers, crew, the band, and all of the passengers’ provisions for the day. Even without the weight of the engine, the train weighed between 185 and 187 tons.
The journey was expected to last an hour. A gradient of 1:75 at the Armagh Bank, however, meant that the engine was under particular strain. Near the summit of this climb, at Derry’s Crossing, the engine began to lose power and finally came to a halt. The incline meant that it would be impossible to restart the train so the crew applied the brakes and considered their options.
It was decided to divide the train in two
to take the carriages over the incline. The train was fitted with a continuous non-automatic vacuum
braking system. This meant that the remaining carriages would be left without the brake triggered by the engine. It was decided to leave stones beneath the wheels of the carriages and the handbrake was applied in the guard’s carriage at the rear.
As the train made to leave, however, it rolled slightly backwards pushing at the static carriages, causing them to move and crush the stones. The handbrake in the guard’s carriage alone couldn’t hold the train and the carriages began to roll back down the line.
Seeing what had happened, the crew tried to place more stones behind the carriage wheels but these were crushed immediately under its force. They tried to recouple the moving carriages to the rest of the train but this dangerous task was also unsuccessful.
The passengers, locked in the carriages, unable to get out through the small windows, were captive to a fate that became more perilous as the carriages picked up speed, travelling the wrong way along the tracks.
The 10:35 train, a powerful engine travelling with a light load, was following behind the excursion train. Though the drivers saw the runaway carriages coming towards them and tried to reverse, it was too late, collision was inevitable.
At a speed of about 40 mph the carriages smashed into the 10:35 train. The last three carriages and their passengers were obliterated. The near-static train was relatively unharmed though its carriages became loose and began to move down the track. Without the quick action of the crew of the 10.35, who managed to stop them, further damage would have been caused.
Once the news of the accident broke, members of the RIC, the Royal Fusiliers, and concerned citizens hastily made their way to the site. Their first task was to free the passengers from the wreckage and separate the living from the dead.
Treatment was administered to the injured at the site and they were taken quickly to medical and make-shift facilities in Armagh. Sixty-four people were pronounced dead immediately and over time the death toll grew to 88. At the time this made the Armagh Rail Disaster the worst in Europe.
The legal proceedings that followed the disaster forced many improvements to the railways. The government passed the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 which required all passenger railways to use the safer continuous automatic brake. It also made stipulations as to signalling and the interlocking of all points and signals.
This legislation was a turning point in the history of the railways. Previously government had taken a hands-off attitude, leaving the powerful railway companies to prosper on their own terms. The Armagh Rail Disaster demonstrated the need for government intervention to ensure passenger safety. The act remains the basic framework for railway operators to this day.