The Armagh rail disaster occurs on June 12, 1889 near Armagh, County Armagh, when a crowded Sunday school excursion train fails to negotiate a steep incline. The steam locomotive is unable to complete the climb and the train stalls. The train crew decides to divide the train and take the front portion forward, leaving the rear portion on the running line. The rear portion has inadequate brakes and rolls back down the gradient, colliding with a following train. Eighty people are killed and 260 are injured, about a third of them children. It is the worst rail disaster in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, and remains Ireland’s worst railway disaster ever.
Armagh Sunday school organises a day trip to the seaside resort of Warrenpoint, a distance of about 24 miles. A special Great Northern Railway of Ireland train is arranged for the journey, intended to carry about eight hundred passengers. The railway route is steeply graded and curved.
Asked to provide a train to take 800 excursionists, the locomotive department at Dundalk sends fifteen vehicles however instructions provided to the engineer are that the train is to consist of thirteen vehicles. The engineer objects to the use of fifteen vehicles. Witnesses say that the engineer asks for a second engine if the additional carriages are added but his request is refused by the station master as no additional engines are available.
Initially, the train progresses up the steep gradient at about 10 mph but stalls about 200 yards from the top of the gradient. To prevent the train from rolling back, the brakes are applied. The chief clerk directs the train crew to divide the train and proceed with the front portion to Hamilton’s Bawn station about two miles away, leaving it there and returning for the rear portion.
After uncoupling the rear portion, the engineer attempts to proceed on with the front portion. Initially, it rolls back slightly, jolting the rear portion which begins to roll back and gathers speed down the steep gradient back towards Armagh station. The train crew reverses the front portion and tries to catch the rear portion but this proves to be impossible.
The line is operated on a time interval system so there is no means at Armagh of knowing that the line is not clear. The following scheduled passenger train leaves Armagh after the required 20-minute interval. It is proceeding up the gradient at about 25 mph when the engineer sees the approaching runaway vehicles at a distance of about 500 yards. He brakes his train and has reduced speed to 5 mph at the moment of collision. The two rearmost vehicles of the excursion train are utterly destroyed, and the third rearmost is very badly damaged.