The Abergele railway disaster

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On 20 August 1868 news of the Abergele rail disaster shook the nation. It was an incident that destroyed much of the complacency surrounding rail travel and it took 33 lives.

It was, at that time, in those early days of the railways, the worst accident to occur on the new transport network.

The Irish Mail, pulled by the mighty Prince of Wales engine, had left Euston Station just after 7.30am that morning. The Mail was a few minutes late in leaving its London terminus, a deficit it was not able to make up on its journey north. But by 11.30am the train was in Chester where it added another four carriages and a second Guards Van to its load.

The Irish Mail was run by the London and North Western Railway, carrying passengers and mail to Hollyhead where fast steamers would be waiting to transport people and material to Dublin and the whole of Ireland.

The train, that morning in August 1868, included a travelling Post Office where letters and parcels could be sorted as the journey went on.

Running through Abergele on the north Wales coast at 20 minutes to one, the Mail was still five minutes late. Just 25 minutes earlier a goods train had left Abergele, on the same track as the fast approaching express.

Officials were aware of the problem and the goods train was supposed to pull into a siding at Llanddulas to allow the Irish Mail to pass by.

Unfortunately, both sidings at Llanddulas were already occupied by empty goods wagons. It meant that six wagons and the brake or guards van of the goods train were left protruding out onto the main line where they were uncoupled and left to stand.

Anticipating the problem, the Llanddulas station master ordered that loose shunting, without the benefit of an engine, should begin to move the standing empty wagons into another siding, thus making room for the six wagons from the goods train.

During the shunting process, however, the brake in the Guards Van became suddenly released and with a 1 in 100 gradient between Llanddulas and Abergele the wagons began to roll back down the slope – directly into the path of the approaching Irish Mail.

Railwaymen tried desperately to board the wagons and guards van but gravity had taken over. With porters and shunters sprawling in their wake, the loose wagons were soon careering downhill with nobody on board and no way of stoping them.

Approximately two miles outside Abergele the runaway wagons were spotted by Arthur Thompson, the driver of the Mail. At first he thought they were on the adjacent track but, terrifyingly, he soon realised that the wagons were on his line and, more importantly, that they were racing towards him.

Thompson slammed on his brakes, reducing the speed of the express to about 15 miles per hour. He could do no more and with disaster staring him in the face, he leapt from the engine. His fireman stayed on the footplate.

When the express and the goods wagons smashed into each other there was a roar like a bomb exploding and the engine and its tender were immediately derailed. They ploughed 30 feet up the track, still pulling the first four coaches and the front guards van.

Wreckage was strewn across the track and onto the adjacent line where the 'Up Train' - from Hollyhead to London – was expected to pass at any minute.

Not too many people had been injured in the crash but disaster had not been averted. It was unfortunate that two of the goods wagons were carrying drums of paraffin and these now broke loose and ignited. The flames immediately swept over the leading carriages of the express, incinerating everyone inside.

As the fire grew in intensity, railwaymen and farm labourers from the immediate area tried to quell the blaze. They formed a human chain between the railway line and the sea which was a bare 200 yards away. Buckets of water were passed along the line and hurled into the flames. It was no use and the luckless passengers were all burned beyond recognition.

Thirty-three people were killed: passengers, the fireman and the guard in the leading van. All of the passengers in the front four carriages were incinerated but, luckily, nobody else was seriously hurt.

The victims were buried in a mass grave in the churchyard of St Michael's in Abergele. Driver Arthur Thompson also later died from his injuries.

It could have been much worse. With the Up Express expected at any moment, someone was directed up the line and was able to hold the train and halt what would have been a disaster of epic proportions.

In the aftermath of the disaster, a charge of manslaughter was levelled at the two brakesmen from the goods wagons. When they appeared in court later in the year, however, the charges were dropped. An inquiry into the disaster was hugely critical of the Llanddulas Station Master and of the safety precautions of the LNWR.

As a result of the Abergele Rail Disaster all steep inclines across the country were quickly fitted with runaway catchpoints in order to stop any loose or runaway wagons.

The practice of locking carriage doors from the outside was stopped as, clearly, if passengers had been able to open their doors they would have been able to escape. New regulations, particularly about the process of storing and carrying flammable materials, were also introduced on all railway networks.

As with so many important sets of regulations, the changes that came out of the Abergele disaster were made in hindsight, once people had been injured or had died.

It is a sad fact that most changes occur this way but that would have given little comfort to the families of the 33 people who were tragically killed that day in August 1868.

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