FORTY years ago this weekend, the worst rail accident in this state’s history occurred at Buttevant station in north Cork.
On a bright, sunny day, a Dublin to Cork train derailed at high speed, killing 18 people and injuring more than 70 others.
As with many major accident investigations, the ensuing public enquiry found that several factors, immediate and systemic, contributed to this horrific episode. I
On August 1, 1980, CIE staff were bracing themselves for perhaps the busiest weekend of the year, when the 10am Dublin-Cork regular passenger service departed Heuston station just a few minutes late.
The well-filled 12-coach train was being hauled by loco 075, a powerful modern engine, just three years in traffic. By contrast, its charges were a mixture of wooden and steel-bodied rolling stock from the early 1950s and ’60s respectively.
The journey had been uneventful when the train left Charleville in north Cork eight minutes ahead of schedule. The maximum speed allowed for these trains was 75mph but engineering work on a section of track three miles north of Buttevant required the driver to reduce speed to 25mph while traversing this section.
With this completed, and with signals ahead clear, the train began to accelerate again to complete the remaining ten miles to its next stop, Mallow.
Although Buttevant had been closed to regular passenger traffic since 1977, the station yard and sidings were being regularly used throughout 1980 by trains involved with work on the Rail Development Plan. The movement and operating procedures around these trains were at the centre of what went wrong on that day.
To facilitate these trains accessing the sidings just south of the platforms, temporary points had been installed off the down line in the previous March, but crucially, had not been connected to the signal cabin where they would have been interlocked with signals for safety.
Points are moveable sections of track that allow trains to crossover onto other lines such as sidings, and if not connected to the signal cabin, are either operated by a nearby ground frame, or manually by a pointsman.
Employing a pointsman, however, usually applied to work of a very temporary nature or where the engineering department had possession of the line and therefore complete control of all movements over it.
In the case of Buttevant, hand-operated points onto a fast-running line had been allowed since early June without any speed restriction. Add to this the practice of sometimes changing times for movement of works trains at short notice without always advising other concerned departments, and the risk of a mishap rapidly increases.
Mistakingly believing that a recently arrived engine from Mallow was to go into the siding before the arrival of the express, the pointsman on duty that day set the points for the siding where a recently filled ballast train was ready to go out; the time was about 12.40pm.
Suddenly, the express came hurtling into sight, he frantically tried to revert the points for through running and very nearly got hit himself. The signalman had thrown all signals to danger, but it was too late.
The 100-ton loco partially derailed but remained upright. Immediately behind was a robust steel van, which remained coupled to the engine in spite of losing its wheels. Between this van and the steel coaches, which were marshalled to the middle and rear of the train, were a first class coach and two dining cars of the older wooden type, and these took the brunt of the impact.
They simply concertinaed and became compressed, or were forced to telescope by the heavier steel carriages behind — a bogie from one of the wooden coaches actually ending upside down 30ft in front of the loco.
The next few steel carriages then jackknifed and ended up at almost right angles to both running lines while the last four carriages remained upright on the track., now obstructing trains going in both directions.
The presence of mind by both loco drivers at this point must be acknowledged, for while the Cork driver ran down the line to place detonators on the track to alert on-coming trains, the driver of the Mallow engine ran to 075 and shut it down.
Within minutes, Mallow Hospital was contacted and the Cork County Disaster Plan went into action. Along with gardaí, a fleet of fire engines and ambulances carrying doctors and nurses were dispatched to the scene.
Helicopters then arrived in a nearby field with medical teams before airlifting the more seriously injured.
While many passengers from down the train were able to walk away from the crash scene with minor injuries or shock, most of the dead and seriously injured were in the front section, which the Irish Times of the following day described as ‘a mangled and grotesque-looking wreckage… The first carriage actually compressed and flattened with gaping holes visible in the roof and floor”.
It was a harrowing scene for, in spite of cries for help from some trapped injured, it wasn’t until the arrival of four heavy cranes that the work of slowly prizing the wreckage apart could begin.
Rescuers, many from Mallow General Hospital, then removed the remaining dead and seriously injured, at great personal risk to themselves.
By evening, the true extent of the tragedy was unfolding and a garda press release stated that 17 people had died and more than 70 were injured, 42 seriously. Another passenger died the following day, bringing the final death toll to 18.
Albert Reynolds, the then Transport Minister, was flown to the scene some hours after the crash where he promised a full public enquiry. This was duly held between September 17 and October 3 at the Hibernian Hotel in Mallow under J. V. Feehan, Inspecting Officer.
Submissions from 56 witnesses were heard and when transcribed totalled 13 volumes, with almost 5,000 folios.
The following April, its findings were published, with the immediate cause of the accident put down to the incorrect making of the points for the siding, while also citing poor communication between CIE staff, and inadequate safety procedures rather than negligence.
It described the delay in connecting the points at the centre of the accident to the signal cabin as “inexplicable”. It also recommended withdrawal of wooden-bodied stock from fast running trains and their replacement by all-steel coaches with modern coupling and anti-collision gangways.
Sadly, before all the lessons of Buttevant could be acted on, seven passengers lost their lives in 1983 when a Galway to Dublin train ploughed into the rear of one that had failed near Kildare. Again, all who died were in old coaches similar to Buttevant, further enforcing the need to modernise the express carriage fleet.
The following year, 1984, a fleet of 100 steel-hulled coaches began entering traffic and gave sterling service for more than 20 years.
Huge investment over the past 20 years has allowed increases in speed, improvement in comfort, and increased frequency in most services.
Remarkably, no passenger has lost their life in an Irish train accident since 1983. Let us hope that continued investment, safety reviews, and constant vigilance by staff, ensure that this statistic will remain unaltered for many years to come.
List of names of people who died in the Buttevant train crash
1. Eileen Redmond, aged 66, Leinster Terrace Wexford
2. Patrick Larkin, aged 77, of 18 Parkview West, Templemore, Co Tipperary
3. Sr. De Lourdes O’ Brien, aged 68, of Convent of Jesus and Mary Gortnor Abbey, Crossmolina, Co. Mayo
4. Sr. Mary Stanislaus Kelleher, aged 63, of Convent of Jesus and Mary Gortnor Abbey, Crossmolina, Co. Mayo
5. Bruce Woodworth, aged 36, of Carrighoun, Old Court, Rochestown, Cork
6. Seamus Coffey, aged 27, of Monalea Estate, Tallaght, Co. Dublin
7. Timothy McCarthy, aged 56, of Hansboror Road, Wellington Road, Cork, who was the train guard.
8. Sr. Margaret Mary O’ Donoghue, aged 68, of Sister of Providence in the Rosinian Convent, Leicester, England
9. Margaret Devlin, aged 29, of St. Josephe’s Villas, Athlone, Co. Westmeath
10. John O’Connor, aged 50, of Greenfield Avoca Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin
11. Mark Barron, aged 18, of Palmerstown Avenue, Palmerstown, Co. Dublin
12. Patrick Alan George, aged 25, of 22 Rue Docteur Mazel, Grenoble, France.
A native of Middlesex, he had been attached to the staff of the Institute Lauclangeview, Grenoble, for three years
13. Albin Zainer, age 50s, of 1050 Brandmayergasse, Vienna
14. Maria Anna Zainer, wife of Albin Zainer, age 50s, of 1050 Brandmayergasse, Vienna
15. Gertrude Bertha Unterberger, aged 71, of Box 690, R.D., 4 East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
16. Virgil John Livingston, aged 70, of 13030 Mitchwin Road, Mitchwin Road, Dallas, Texas, USA
17. Samuel Samuel Owen Corke, aged 60, of 81 Warick Place, Priors park, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England
18. Winifred Meaher, of Templemore, Co. Tipperary, was originally listed as critically injured and became the 18th fatality of the crash.
The local Buttevant community were praised in the press for their community spirit and willingness to help out as several locals who lived nearby opened their homes as tea stations for the distraught passengers who were able to walk from the scene.
The local GAA community hall was also opened as a centre where lost property handed in by local volunteers could be recovered.