The Runaway Train - Roscrea Through The Ages

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The Runaway Train

History > History 2
The Last Train from Birr September 1960

by Joe Coughlan.

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On 19th July 1910 two trains carrying between them over 800 passengers collided on the Roscrea to Birr line injuring over 400 people – 76 of them seriously.
At 8.44 that morning a special train with 10 carriages left Birr to take pilgrims to Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork . There were about 750 people on this train, many of them clergy.  Before the train left Birr the driver checked the vacuum brakes and found a slight leak.  He repaired this temporarily and carried on to Roscrea.  The train arrived in Roscrea and was standing at the Birr platform which was the opposite side to the station house.  There was a large group of passengers from Roscrea waiting to join the special so the station master Mr Hayes decided to add four more carriages to accommodate these.  

The head porter Mr Deering uncoupled the engine and pulled away to the siding and connected the carriages.  They then proceeded to link up these with the other carriages and when they were shunted together the 10 carriages started to move away down the line towards Birr.  Birr line had a gradual decline for about 4½ miles.  Mr Deering the porter then ran back to the rear van and along with Mr Byrne the guard they both tried to apply the handbrake but it failed to stop the train.  In the meantime the 9.15 regular train from Birr had left with driver Tim Broughan and guard Dan Shortt along with about 50 passengers unaware of what was happening.  The runaway train gathered speed and was travelling down the line at 30mph.
Meanwhile on the runaway the smoke from the Birr engine could be seen coming towards them and Mr Deering tried in vain to apply the handbrake while Mr Byrne stepped out on the running board and began to wave a red flag.  The stationmaster Mr Hayes who had also boarded the train stepped out on the other side and was waving his straw hat wildly.  When the driver of the up train saw what was happening he immediately brought the train to a halt and began to reverse when the collision occurred at Fanure. Many people had seen what was about to happen and had jumped from the train before the collision and had suffered broken legs and arms and other injuries.  Although the impact was severe it was greatly reduced by the driver’s swift action.
The impact demolished the first four carriages of the runaway completely and it was the passengers in these four carriages who suffered most of the serious injuries.  The passengers in the other six suffered mainly cuts and bruises.  The passengers included some nurses and doctors who came to the assistance of the injured.  The monks from the monastery came to the assistance with other first aid equipment.  When the news reached Roscrea, doctors, nurses and other helpers were sent down on the special train.  Help was also sent from Birr including members of the Leinster Regiment who were stationed at Crinkhill .
The day after the crash an official from the railway company started to visit the injured in Birr and Roscrea and offered sums between a crown (25P) and £20 in compensation.  At that stage there were 76 injury claims paid out but many more followed and the final number was 492.  The final compensation payment was £52,676 pounds.
Mr Tim Broughall whose swift action in stopping the train probably saved many lives was given 100 pounds in railway shares which was a huge amount of money at that time.
After this accident all the braking systems on all the GSW railway trains was upgraded.

The picture above shows the last engine to run on the Birr line. This picture was taken in September 1960.

                                                                                                                                                      The Birr/ Roscrea Train Disaster
THE Birr and Roscrea districts were thrown into a state of consternation on
Tuesday last owing to the report which, sad to tell, was verified to the letter, that the
excursion train with a freight of about 250 who left the former station at 8.40 a.m.,
had got out of control at Roscrea and dashed backward a distance of four miles to
the crossing cottage at Moynure lane, and ran into the ordinary passenger train
which left Birr at 9.15 a.m. For at least the past half century there has been none
such in the experience of the G.S. & W. R. Company, and in a miniature way it
resembled very much the awful calamity which occurred twenty years ago on the
great Northern line when a couple of hundred school-children from Armagh lost
their lives. With the word first going round the wildest stories passed to and fro, but
after eliminating these rumours the facts are melancholy enough. The train got to
Roscrea to time. Here there was another crowd of intending tourists for
Queenstown, and as soon as the train slowed in there was the usual rush for
places. Just then the engine was detached to take on more carriages, and on the
return gave the waiting carriages a knock which instantly set them in motion before
the couplings could be joined. lt also appears that the guard, from no fault of his
own, had not put on the brake. The motion beginning gradually, accelerated until
the speed was variously reckoned at from 15 to 25 miles an hour. Be that as it may,
the uncontrolled "runaway" travelled to near Brosna. The Birr guard and engine
driver, seeing the approach on the single line, both doing their work with presence
of mind and promptitude, managed to bring their train to a stand just as the fugitive
nine or ten carriages were on top of them. There was not a moment's time for
running back but several passengers of the ordinary train seeing the peril jumped
out, and strange to say the collision, although so tremendous that the funnel of the
engine was shot into the air as from a catapult, the occupants escaped, save one or
two who sustained slight bruises and cuts. Far otherwise, alas! ls the tale to be
related of the excursion train? Five of the coaches were totally wrecked. A number
of clergymen suffered most, and how any escaped from instant death is a mystery,
three carriages being telescoped and broken. Mr Hayes, the Roscrea
Stationmaster, was on the Roscrea footboard when the carriages began to move,
and had a most exciting time of it until he adroitly slid down with an alacrity that
cannot be too highly praised. A number of the ordinary passengers did all in their
power to afford succour by bringing out the injured, and the helpers in this were Mr
J. J. Kennedy, solr. and Mr W Carroll, Arabeg. Numbers of the uninjured
excursionists co-operated, prominent amongst them being the Rev. P. J. Gilsenan
whose own escape was miraculous; Mr J.F.Power, solr. Birr, &c., &c. Mr Willington,
J.P., being on the opposite side of the river plunged in at once got the seats out and
converted them into stretchers which proved most timely. Messengers were at
once despatched to Roscrea for medical aid, and with most admirable tact Mr
O'Keeffe, stationmaster at Birr, sent out requests to the local doctors who, on their
part, were not slow to respond. Dr Fleury dashed away in his motor car, Dr
D'Alton's on a motor bicycle. Dr F Woods on a bike, and Col. C. Woods drove, all
from Birr; Dr Graham, Shinrone; and Dr Gilligan, Cloughjordan, also assisted, while
the Roscrea gentlemen, Drs. Powell, Wallace, Murray, Houlihan, &c., were no less
punctual and valuable in their services. Meantime a break-down gang was
despatched from Thurles who tackled the clearing away of the debris and kept at it
until well into Tuesday night when the line was clear. lt might have been thought
that the permanent way would have been ripped up, but beyond some sleepers
being torn up the ground damage was trifling. The rail traffic being stopped,
busses, brakes and cars were substituted, and these were engaged in conveying
some of the wounded to their homes. From the Kingsbridge was despatched
special trains, and as soon as possible the more serious cases were removed to
Dublin; but it was deemed best to not risk the long journey in the case of the Rev. J.
Cunningham P.P., Kinnitty, whose badly lacerated forehead was only part of his
injuries which border, we regret to hear, on being described as dangerous. Owing
to the confusion and other difficulties only a partial list of the casualties could be

 Newspaper articles

  Roscrea railway smash    CLICK HERE

Many priests among the injured  CLICK HERE

Brakes Fail                                CLICK HERE

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