Monorail, monorail, monorail …

Most of the cases in our database are fairly standard – certainly in terms of being above ground and referring to ‘standard gauge’ track (the well-known 4 foot 8 and a half inches between rails, albeit the reasons for which are debated). However, there are some outliers – including accidents on underground railways (London and Glasgow), on narrow gauge lines (the subject of a previous blog post, here) and on broad gauge lines in Ireland.

There’s a really unusual case, however: an accident in 1914 on the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway, which was a monorail … of sorts. Difficult to describe easily, some images will help convey some of the oddity of the railway:

c.1900 postcard, Listowel & Ballybunion Railway.
Source: wikipedia

Loco No 1, and crew.
Courtesy NRM, negative 69/89.

It was a Lartigue railway, the idea developed by the French engineer Charles Lartigue. A number were built, but the Listowel and Ballybunion is perhaps the best known of these (certainly in the Anglophone world). It operated between 1888 and 1924, and was put in place because it was a relatively cheap means of introducing a railway connection through largely agricultural land. Stock – including the locomotives – had to balance equally over the monorail, so everything effectively had two halves. (It must have been a devil of a job to get it all to balance with an uneven number of passengers – or, with horrendous potential for faux pas, passengers of … uneven size and shape, shall we say?)

A page of images from the Great Central Railway Magazine, Feb 1917.
Courtesy NRM.

This curiosity was still a railway, however, with the same regulatory framework and obligation to run safely, reporting all accidents, including to staff. So, when the worst happened on 14 October 1914 and James Lynch was killed at Moyballa, Inspector JPS Main was dispatched to investigate. Lynch had worked from 06.30 that morning until 12noon, coming back on duty at 17.00, when he was expected to work for another 3 hours. That gap in the middle of the day was quite significant, according to Main’s report.

On the day in question additional trains had been put on to ferry people to and from a race meeting at Listowel. Lynch was a ‘milesman’ – a form of permanent way worker (someone who looked after the track); his role in the afternoon was to look after 3 crossings near Moyballa, having travelled there by train from Listowel where he had spent the afternoon. As the suspicious among you will have realised, Main connected the accident with the 5 hour gap in the middle of the day, spent in the town where the race meeting was taking place. So, though a witness ‘assures me that Lynch was showing no signs of drink [on his way back on duty] I understand that he had been drinking during his off time at Listowel in the afternoon, and account must be taken of the occasion.’

What happened isn’t entirely clear, but as the train heading towards Listowel reaching Moyballa at around 18.00 ‘a lurch was felt and the train stopped, when it was found that Lynch had been run over with fatal results.’ Surmising from the position of the body, Main concluded that Lynch had been sitting on one of the guard rails of the track, trying to take his boots off. He went on: ‘To my mind there is every indication that the unfortunate man was under the influence of, or affected by, drink.’ As a result his conclusion was ‘want of care’ (1914 Quarter 4, Appendix B).

Cases involving alcohol are quite unusual, as the railways were relatively strict (at least in the rule books) about sobriety when on duty. And cases involving a monorail are even rarer – to date, this is the only investigated accident in the database. Yet the idea of want of care was all too familiar, however accurate it was – or wasn’t – in many cases.

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