Looking Back with Liam Kenny: Train crash on an autumn night

Veteran Newbridge photographer Oliver McCrossan was at the scene of the Cherryville crash
South of Kildare town, to the west of the road to Monasterevin, there is a stretch of lowlying land that has a consistency somewhere between that of a marsh and a bog.

South of Kildare town, to the west of the road to Monasterevin, there is a stretch of lowlying land that has a consistency somewhere between that of a marsh and a bog.

Come late August and moisture rising from the soil condenses in the cool autumn air and results in a peculiarly low lying fog. Fingers of mist extend across the soft ground, rising barely a few feet off the turf.

Bisecting the low lying terrain is the embankment of the Cork-Dublin railway line and it was here at a point just south of Cherryville junction where the Cork and Waterford lines merge that a train crash resulting in multiple fatalities took place on the night of 21 August 1983.

Shortly after 9.40pm on that autumn night a passenger train from Galway ploughed into the rear of a train from Tralee which had stalled on the embankment after its engine had run out of diesel. The catastrophic collision claimed the lives of seven passengers and injured another fifty-five. Whether the mid-Kildare fog was a factor in the disaster was raised at the Dept.of Transport enquiry that ensued but it seemed to be only a minor factor in a litany of circumstances which unfolded in the hours leading up that fateful night.

The fact that an engine pulling a passenger train could run out of fuel and leave crew and 300 passengers stranded in the middle of a bog was in itself almost incredible in a 20th century travel undertaking. And when the unthinkable happened years of carefully honed railway safety procedures failed. Emergency telephones were unserviceable, an experimental radio system for drivers to contact signalmen had fallen into disuse, and there was ambiguity about signalling regulations which governed the exceptional situations which allowed a train driver pass a red stop signal.

The ex-Tralee train had an ill-starred journey since it had left the Kerry county town earlier that afternoon. At Millstreet the engine failed and the driver coaxed it on to Mallow where he requested a replacement engine. As it happened there was an engine spare in Mallow that night and it was hooked up to the Tralee train.

However the replacement locomotive was dangerously low on fuel. Its tanks had been topped at Waterford on the previous Friday night and the engine had been running continuously for some thirty-six hours since then meaning that its tank was nearing empty.

The driver opened the throttle on the replacement engine and the Tralee train, running about twenty minutes late, headed off in the Dublin direction. All seemed well until passing Monasterevin when the engine tone changed and struggled on for another two miles before power faded away and the train rolled to a halt beside the thirty-three and a quarter milepost from Dublin Heuston.

The driver dismounted from the engine and walked back to the end of the train where he had a conversation with the train guard as to what action to take to alert other trains that the Tralee train was now stranded on the track. The situation was serious – a train with over 300 passengers on board stuck at night in the middle of a bog. Their biggest worry was the knowledge that there were trains following from behind and they needed to get a message through to the signalling control centre in Dublin.

The Tralee driver made his way along the track to the find a line-side telephone which would enable him to call the central control in Dublin. Precious minutes were lost as his attempts to get through to Dublin were frustrated by technical faults on the phone line. In the meantime the train guard had set off on the track in the rear of the Tralee train to warn any following train that his train was stuck on the track. The passengers on the Tralee train were oblivious to the danger which was coming down the track in their path. One, standing at a window, noticed a light approaching from the south but it went out.

The train guard had only gone a few yards when he saw the light of an approaching engine. He formed the impression that this was a locomotive coming to help. But the oncoming train rolled past him and smashed into the back of the Tralee train pushing its carriageways of the track with the force of impact.

The driver of the Galway train which collided with the Tralee train had been held at a red signal outside Portarlington. He attempted to ring control in Dublin from a line side phone to see what the problem was. Again the phone system failed. It was a cardinal rule of rail safety that trains were to stop at red signals but there was an ambiguous exception which allowed the driver to move forward provided he did so at a speed where he could bring the train to a halt if any obstacle was spotted.

Failing to get through on the telephone the Galway driver felt he had no option but to proceed further along the line. North of Monasterevin the track takes a long curve to the right as it lines up for the approach to Kildare station. This curve was to prove central to the circumstances

of the accident. The Galway train driver reported that across the curve he had momentarily caught sight in the distance of a green signal light. What he did not see was the Galway train stuck on the curve between his position and that of the green signal light.

And according to him the fog added to the confusion. He said that the headlamp on his engine was being reflected back by fog and he switched the light off to try and get better visibility. After a few moments he went back on to full light and suddenly the beam illuminated the rear of a train in front of him. He hit the brakes and threw himself to the floor as his locomotive crashed into the rear carriage of the Tralee train.

An impact where 300 tons of moving train –even at slow speed -- met 300 tons of stopped train was inevitably going to end in disaster. And so it proved with the carriages of the Tralee train being forced into a lethal concertina effect which crushed a vulnerable wooden framed carriage on the Tralee train. The impact was catastrophic with carriage bogies bludgeoned off the track and wreckage sent crashing down the embankment.

The local emergency services including the County Fire Service from Newbridge, Naas Hospital Ambulance crews, the Garda, the all-volunteer Civil Defence and troops from the Curragh, responded through the night as the scale of the disaster became apparent.

Today dozens of trains daily thunder by the spot at Cherryville where the 1983 accident occurred. Series no: 345.

Historian Liam Kenny writes the Looking Back column every week in the Leinster Leader