Abergele train disaster

From Academic Kids

The Abergele Train Disaster in 1868 was the first major railway disaster in Britain.

On August 20 1868, at 7.30 a.m., the train Irish Mail left the Euston Station in London for Holyhead. It pulled four passenger carriages, a mail van and a traveling post office. At 11.30 a.m. in Chester, it collected four additional passenger carriages that were attached to the front of the locomotive. After an hour the train was approaching Abergele in Wales.

At the same time at Llandulas, railway workers shunted cargo trucks from the main line to the sidings. During the shuffling, they had to leave six trucks with a brake van on the main line. Two of the trucks carried barrels of paraffin. When some of the trucks were shunted against them, the brakes in a brake van slipped, and the trucks begun to slide down the incline toward the Irish Mail.

Engine driver Arthur Thompson saw the trucks speeding towards the train from behind the curve of the sea wall. He turned off steam and threw the engine into reverse, but it was too late.

When the cargo trucks collided with the passenger carriages at the front, the paraffin exploded, and fire engulfed the carriages, killing 33 passengers in a matter of minutes and leaving the engine driver seriously injured.

A number of laborers ran to the scene from a nearby quarry and formed a human chain, trying to quench the flames with seawater; however, they failed to save anyone. (The bodies were so scarred that only three of them could be later identified.) The victims were buried in a huge trench, with the London & North Western Railway Company paying all funeral expenses.

During the inquest, the coroner received an anonymous letter that put the blame on the Fenians; the Irish rebels had supposedly tried to assassinate the wife and servants of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The inquest did not find any kind of evidence to support this, and the letter was declared a hoax.

Injured Arthur Thompson was suspected of speeding but there was much sympathy for him; he died of his injuries in October. Llandulas' brakemen assured that they were very careful, although some witnesses claimed they had seen runaway trucks before; the brakemen were eventually cleared of responsibility.

Newspapers blamed the railway company for not ensuring the safety of the passengers. The Board of Trade demanded a number of safety measures, including a telegraph system to connect all the stations, and that inflammable material should be transported on special trains.


It became the practice for steep inclines to be fitted with runaway catchpoints so that runaway vehicles would be derailed and stopped before they had a chance to collide with following trains.

These catchpoints became widespread, and only diminished in numbers when all rolling stock was fitted with continuous automatic brakes in the 1980s.

See Also


  • Robert Hume - Death by Chance: The Abergele Train Disaster, 1868 (2004)

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