143 years ago today, on the afternoon of Saturday 16 May 1874, a scheduled passenger train left Brecon for Merthyr at 1.50pm, and following a few unavoidable delays arrived just after 3.25pm, eight minutes late, at the Great Western Railway Station at Merthyr Tydfil. The train was just reaching the end of the inner platform when it was hit by great force from behind by twenty-one fully-laden coal trucks.
At approximately 3.00pm that afternoon, a coal train of twenty-four fully-laden trucks had left the same platform at the Station heading for Swansea. At that time it was the policy of the Great Western Railway Company to work mineral trains going up the incline to the Aberdare Tunnel with an extra engine at the rear or at the front of the train to help propel the train up the incline. On this day, the train that had left Merthyr station was in one of these latter configurations.
On such occasions, it was the duty of the guards to be at separate positions at each end of the train to help operate the brakes with the brake-man. For some reason, the guard on this particular train was travelling with his colleague in the engine at the front, leaving the brake-man alone in the rear van. Shortly after the train had entered the Aberdare Tunnel, a coupling somewhere near the front of the train broke. The guards were alerted to this by the fact that the front part of the train suddenly accelerated. Having brought the train to a standstill the guards ran back along the track to find that more than half the train – twenty-one trucks in all had become detached from the train and had run back along the line on which they had just travelled. Between the Great Western Station and the Aberdare Tunnel, the railway line rises over three-quarters of a mile in a series of inclines ranging between 1 in 45 and 1 in 70 gradients, so this, coupled with the weight of the loads being carried, meant that the runaway trucks were accelerating the whole time along the track. The train was travelling at such a speed that the signalman at the Cyfarthfa Crossing and another signalman at the Rhydycar Junction, just half a mile from the station, were powerless to do anything to stop the train’s progress or to warn those at the Great Western Station.
Within minutes the trucks hit the passenger train. It is estimated that they were, by this time, travelling in excess of 40 miles an hour. They hit the passenger train with a force of approximately 300 tons of deadweight travelling at a mile a minute, and the sound of the crash was heard over a 300 yard radius. The force of the impact smashed the passenger coaches and forced the locomotive engine ‘The Elephant’ through the buffers at the end of the track, across the platform at the end of it, through the front of the station and into the road beyond before finally crashing into the high retaining wall at John Street, penetrating the wall to a depth of about four feet and damaging the foundations of the Grosvenor Hotel in John Street.
The first carriage on the train, immediately behind the engine tender, took the main force of the concussion that travelled along the train, and it was reduced to splinters, the only portion left for identification being the framework which was embedded beneath the guard’s van. Fortunately there were no passengers in this carriage – it is obvious that if there had been anyone in the carriage they would have been killed outright. Next was a composite (a mixed first and second class) carriage which came to rest on top of the guard’s van, amazingly the only damage this carriage sustained was broken windows and doors, and passengers in this carriage sustained only minor injuries, two further third-class carriages followed this, but the final third-class carriage which took the main brunt of the collision was almost totally demolished. It was in this carriage that most of the injuries occurred.
In all 52 people were badly injured, most people suffering from fractures and cuts and bruises. A large number of people also suffered from the effects of shock. The most serious injuries were sustained by the recently married Mrs Stephens of Pontypridd who suffered serious fractures to both legs, resulting in them both being amputated below the knee.
Miss Sarah Davies of Coed-cae Court, Twynyrodyn, also sustained fractures to both legs and needed one of her legs amputated below the knee. Mrs Elizabeth Morgan, aged 30, of Cefn Coed, also had both legs fractured and needed one leg amputated below the knee. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the doctors, Mrs Morgan’s injuries were far worse than originally thought, and she died of her injuries a week after the accident. It is miraculous that this was the only fatality. The driver of the train, David Humphreys, along with the stoker and the guard, managed to jump from the engine just as it crashed through the end of the station and sustained only minor injuries.
If you want to find out more, a fuller account of the crash appears in Merthyr Historian volume 26.