Temporarily Sided: The 1980 Buttevant (Ireland) Derailment
Buttevant is a town of 970 people (as of 2016) in southern Ireland, located in Cork County 47km/29mi south of Limerick and 40km/25mi north-northwest of Cork.
The town lies on the Dublin-Cork railway line, a double-tracked non-electrified main line crossing much of Ireland north to south at a length of 266km/165mi. Opening in 1844 before being later expanded to today’s size the line is Ireland’s main railway corridor, carrying everything from commuter trains to long-distance express trains and occasional freight services. The tracks utilize the 1600mm “Irish Gauge”, significantly wider than the standard 1435mm.
The train involved
The 10:00am service from Dublin to Cork on the 1st of August 1980 was an express passenger service consisting of 11 four-axle passenger cars of different types along with a so-called generator car, a former passenger car fitted with a generator to provide electricity to the train instead of the locomotive doing so. The generator car was the leading car behind the locomotive, followed by a first class passenger car, two buffet cars and a second class passenger car which were an older design with a steel frame carrying a wood body. The center of the train consisted of five Craven-type passenger cars with an all-metal construction followed by another two second class wood-body passenger cars bringing up the rear. The Craven-type cars had been made in the mid-60s while the wooden body cars stemmed, with one exception, from the early fifties. At the time of the accident the train carried approximately 230 passengers, being filled mostly with people heading out to enjoy a holiday-weekend.
Pulling the train was Irish Railway (CIE) Class 071 number 075, a six-axle diesel locomotive introduced in 1976. Made by EMD (General Motors’ locomotive division) these heavy diesel locomotives were specifically developed for services in both Northern Ireland (where they are designated as Class 111) and the Republic of Ireland, later also being adapted to the Serbian railway network. Each unit weighs 101 metric tons at a length of 17.37m/57ft and can reach up to 145kph/90mph thanks to a 127-liter V12 two-stroke turbodiesel producing up to 1680kW/2250hp.
On the first of August 1980 CIE 71 075 is approaching Buttevant station at approximately 12:40pm, expecting to proceed right through the tiny station and continue its southbound journey. It has been an uneventful journey since the 378-ton train had left Dublin at 10:00am.
But then, right outside Buttevant station, Mister Walsh sees the signals in front of his train flip from green to red unexpectedly. He immediately triggers an emergency stop, but the heavy train is travelling at approximately 113kph/70mph, and with its weight it needs almost 1km/0.6mi to stop. Walsh likely knew that, whatever the signals warned him of, the warning came too late.
Up ahead at the station a set of points had been temporarily installed, connecting the main line to a siding to allow construction work in the area. The points were not connected to the signal box and had to be manually set, a process that reportedly took several minutes each time. Just as he cleared the approach for the southbound express train the signalman at the station realized that the points were set to divert into the siding, which was occupied by a row of freight cars carrying gravel for trackwork. He set the signals to red and, unable to operate them from his position, ordered the workers at the track to set them to “straight ahead” RIGHT NOW.
Among the workers at the siding was Mister Condon, who could already see the approaching train in the distance. He frantically started the process of resetting the points, using a crowbar to try and free wooden wedges that secured the points in their setting. He managed to remove one of the two wedges, but had barely started working on removing the second wedge when he had to jump out of the approaching train’s path, unable to do anything but watch the unfolding tragedy.
The express train reached the points at 12:45pm, being directed into the siding at 97kph/60mph. The locomotive’s heavy weight kept it on the tracks despite the violent s-turn it was forced to navigate before striking the ballast cars and throwing them aside, but the train cars didn’t fare nearly as well. The generator car immediately derailed and jackknifed along with the following cars, creating a motion similar to a folding ruler. The wooden body passenger cars at the head of the train saw themselves crushed between the locomotive and the Craven-type cars behind them, suffering a total loss of survival space. The leading Craven-type car was severely damaged also, with damage lessening the further back a car was in the train as the piling wreckage somewhat cushioned the subsequent impacts, acting as a crumple zone. The rear three cars (one Craven-type and two wooden-bodied cars) remained on track and didn’t suffer any damage at all. But up ahead 17 people had been killed and over 70 were injured.
The first people on scene, among them by sheer coincidence a local doctor, where met with a sprawling field of twisted metal and splintered wood. The bogie from one of the wooden passenger cars, itself a heavy steel piece the size of a car (the kind driving on roads), was found 9m/30ft ahead of the locomotive, being thrown there by the violent impact after shearing off its train car.
Mister Walsh, who had survived the collision with minor injuries feared another train running into the wreckage and jumped out of the barely-damaged locomotive, running down the rail line and placing detonators on the oncoming rails that would tell train drivers to stop by means of a loud bang when run over. Meanwhile the driver of a locomotive that had been sitting in the oncoming track went over to Walsh’s abandoned locomotive and shut it down. The first professional responders arrived a few minutes after the accident, later being joined by medivac helicopters and a shuttle-helicopter used by workers at a nearby gas field, ferrying survivors to and from hospitals when it was expected that they wouldn’t survive the trip by ambulance. The whole time responders worked under the cries and screams from trapped survivors, it would take until after heavy duty cranes reached the site in the evening that the wreckage could be picked apart enough to rescue them.
Early the next morning one of the initial survivors succumbed to their injuries, bringing the death-toll to the final 18. By that time investigators had taken over the site of the accident, trying to work out why and how the prestigious express train had derailed outside a random little Irish town. Buttevant station hadn’t been used for passenger services since 1977, but the station’s siding was commonly used to shunt or store maintenance and construction trains, as had been the case on the day of the accident. Tragically, the train that had been parked in the siding was there for construction work just a short distance north of the station for which the express train had slowed down to 40kph/25mph. It hadn’t even finished accelerating back to its regular speed when the emergency stop was triggered.
Installing temporary points was nothing out of the ordinary during construction work, even if it meant that they usually had no connection to the signal box and thus also weren’t connected to the signaling-system. A fully integrated set of points wouldn’t have given the express train a green signal in the first place without being set properly. They also had a more complicated and time-consuming operation, requiring more time and another person (the points guard) to operate them. Using temporary points like that on high-speed main lines had been criticized in the past, but the practice had always been declared safe.
Talking to Mister Condon, his coworkers, the driver of the parked locomotive and the signalman investigators started piecing together how the arguably non-ideal usage of manual temporary points had escalated into the fatal events that placed the day in the history books of Irish Rail. The parked locomotive had arrived from Marlow, about 15km/9mi down the line from Buttevant, being intended to pick up the parked freight cars from the siding. At some point communications between the workers at the track and the signalman had broken down, leaving uncertainty about the exact schedule. Construction trains often shifted their schedule around on short notice and without all involved personnel being informed, and thus Mister Condon had somehow ended up with the instruction or at least assumption that the locomotive was meant to move to the siding before the express train passes through rather than afterwards. As such him and his coworkers set the points for the siding, finishing just moments before the express train came into sight.
The signalman, unable to reset the points from his position, set the signals to “stop” and ordered the workers to reset the points in a desperate attempt to avoid disaster, but it was too late. The points couldn’t be reset fast enough and thus the express train raced into the siding, colliding with the parked freight cars. The locomotive suffered minor damage in the collision, and the following steel-body generator car remained coupled to and aligned with it despite losing all its wheels in the derailment. The wooden cars behind the generator car became the weak link, being crushed between two much more rigid parts of the train.
Upon the report being released the discussion about the retirement of the older wooden bodied train cars was reignited, since it was fairly clear that the accident would have had less severe consequences had the train been made up of exclusively all-metal train cars. Public pressure mounted on the railway company and the Irish government to finally modernize the fleet as a whole in a decently short timespan. The report doesn’t come down lightly on the wooden bodied cars, calling their construction “totally inadequate” for modern rail traffic, pointing out how they quickly collapsed in on themselves “like an accordion” while the metal bodied cars maintained much more survival space. In the aftermath of the accident the decision was thus made to order a fleet of new British Rail Mark 3 passenger cars, whose roof structure alone can withstand 300 metric tons of lengthwise compression forces, making them much less likely to be crushed by adjacent cars in an accident.
This accident, along with the 1983 Cherryville Junction accident which claimed 7 lives, account for 70 percent of all fatalities on Irish trains in a 28-year period. It is no wonder then that the accident marks a VERY dark day in Irish history, especially that of Irish transportation.
The accident stayed with the survivors and responders for the rest of their lives, in a 2005 interview Mister Walsh, then 82 years old, recalls how he never stopped thinking about how he could have changed the events of the day, despite knowing beyond doubt that he had absolutely no influence on the situation. At the time there was no counselling or therapy for survivors or responders, quite the opposite, Walsh was given the task of driving the first train back to dublin once the tracks were sufficiently cleared. Nowadays a train driver would not be put back at the controls right after going through a traumatic event like that, but back then the support system was a far cry from what it is today.
Other people involved in the aftermath compared the wreckage to the aftermath of a bombing, Miss Coughlan, a nurse who had to triage survivors arriving at her hospital felt reminded of the mornings after a WW2 bombing raid.
Buttevant’s church played a unique role in the aftermath and remembrance of the accident, with a local resident coming to the church every day to light a candle for the victims, starting shortly after the accident occurred and maintaining the routine until at least 2020, a full 40 years. The lantern with the candle was a gift from the Zeiner-brothers, two Austrian residents who lost their parents in the disaster. An official memorial wasn’t unveiled until 2005, the 5ft statue at Buttevant station shows two intersecting train tracks holding up two oval plaques, one listing the victims and one telling the story of what happened at the site in 1980.
The last wood-bodied cars were retired from Irish rail services within the 80s, and the then-modern Cravens-type cars were finally pulled from service in the mid-2000s. Today services like the one involved in the accident would use the Iarnród Éireann (IE, the CIE’s succeeding company) Mark 4 Intercity cars introduced in 2006, a modern train car design featuring not only higher comfort and speed but also vastly superior crash protection than the train cars involved in the accident. The Class 071 diesel locomotive is still in service, having gone through a refurbishment in 2018, but the Mark 4 cars are usually paired with the more modern Class 201.
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