Belturbet Railway Station. Courtesy of the PJ Dunne Postcard Collection.

Belturbet Train Crash in 1879

This week's Times Past from Jonathan Smyth is about a benign train crash in Belturbet over a hundred years ago that could have turned out horribly...

Thankfully, not every train crash causes death and destruction. The collision at Belturbet in November 1879 comes under this less harmful category. Later, that same month, Major General C.S. Hutchinson sat down at his desk to write up a report for the Board of Trade about his findings. His report was made up of interviews with railway workers and witnesses who cast their minds back to the day that a ‘mixed passenger train’ and a ‘special cattle train’ collided.

The 2.35pm mixed passenger train consisted of an engine, tender, five wagons, two carriages, and a break-van. Making its way from Clones, it was bound for Cavan and due to make a stop at Belturbet at 3pm. However, it was run into (engine to engine) by the 2.55pm special cattle train,which was made-up of an engine, tender, break-van, 28 loaded cattle wagons, two carriages ‘for drovers’, and a second break-van.

When the Cavan line opened for traffic in April 1862, one of its intermediate stations was named ‘Belturbet Junction’. However, it took a long time before a branch was built and, when one was opened in 1885, it was renamed Ballyhaise station ,which must have been confusing to the travelling public. Then two years later, the Cavan and Leitrim narrow gauge railway reached Belturbet town and operated from a mixed gauge station, which handled goods and passengers for both the Cavan & Leitrim Railway and the GNR.

In 1879, the stationmaster at Belturbet junction was George Lough and he had been working there for four years. In his evidence, Lough pointed out that he was on duty on the day of the accident and said that the train from Clones had arrived on time, did some station work, then ‘it went down to the points at the Clones end and backed into the siding’ to allow for the train from Clones, due at 3pm, ‘which had not yet arrived’. The up train eventually moved back out from the siding at 3.10pm, stopping by the platform to leave off some carriages, before going up to the points at the Cavan end with some wagons in tow, leaving off two of them. The engine came back again to the platform and was recoupled to the carriages and wagons.

Disaster erupted as the engine drew the train on to the main line ‘to the points at the Cavan end’ instead of settling back into the siding to allow the Clones special cattle train to pass at 3.15pm and warning signals were heard to whistle. However, the Clones special coming from Cavan was heard to sound its whistle unexpectedly, while the signals were against it. The stationmaster stated, ‘seeing the distant-signal at danger, and coming on as I thought too quickly, I went towards the engine of the passenger train to try and stop the driver, but there was so much noise from whistling that I could not make myself heard’.

The passenger train desperately tried to reverse as the crash occurred.

The engine driver on the passenger train, Samuel Connor, recalled, ‘we were in motion towards the points when I heard the cattle train driver whistle’ and give a wave of his hand.

Connor attempted to put his engine in reverse but the speed of the oncoming engine at five miles an hour meant that a head-on collision was inevitable. In his defence of the approaching train, Connor told the inquiry that, it was not very easy ‘coming down the hill’ into Belturbet, and that the distant-signal was poorly placed, and out of view. Rail Guard Howell Davis described how all of the six passengers jumped from Connor’s train, except for one who was injured.

The engine driver of the other train, James McGuigan, had been driving between Clones and Cavan for four years. He had departed from Cavan that day at 3.05pm to make a trip to Belfast with 28 ‘loaded cattle wagons’, two carriages for drovers, and a second van for the guard. As he approached Belturbet junction, he shut off the steam, slowing the train down, he described the engine as being ‘the perfect master of its load’. Suddenly, he became aware of the distant signal, displayed at danger, and McGuigan realised that he must stop the train immediately. The tender break was applied as the fireman ‘sanded the wheels’.

The train did not stop but continued at a speed of 10 miles per hour. McGuigan watched the passenger train in front of him as it scrambled to reverse out of the way. McGuigan recalled that his train was down to about four miles per hour at the time of impact. The cattle train received no damage and McGuigan and his fireman were not injured. Patrick McKiernan, fireman; David Corry, goods guard; and Alexander Hamilton, goods guard; were asked to give evidence, which helped to confirm what the train drivers said.

Major General Hutchinson concluded that the accident was caused, firstly, by the want of ‘due caution’ on the part of McGuigan, who assumed that the other train would move back, and secondly, the slowness of the rear guard in applying the breaks, and thirdly, Connors should have reversed ‘sooner and faster’. Added to this, Samuel Connor should not have moved his train on to the track, which was a single track, when he knew that another train was due to arrive. In Hutchinson’s view, what Connor did was ‘a very dangerous act’. Hutchinson recommended that a second platform and additional siding room be built at Belturbet Junction. Thankfully, no serious harm was caused and, as mentioned, improvements were applied in 1885.

It was exciting to read recently that Belturbet Heritage Railway are in the process of re-installing railway tracks at Belturbet Railway Station and I would like to wish them all the best in their venture.


Times Past - Recalling some of Cavan’s past history columnists