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A one-way problem

Railway working produced all sorts of odd terms, specific to the industry. Some of these are less obvious than others – but one which might more easily be understood from the title is ‘tow-roping.’ Not dissimilar from towing a vehicle on the roads, tow-roping involved using a rope to pull a wagon or wagons. It was used in locations inaccessible to conventional means of moving stock or to save time and effort. It was also dangerous, as it involved a shunter or goods guard running alongside the moving stock and unhooking the rope at exactly the right moment, possibly also changing points to send stock down a different line. Unsurprisingly, tow-roping features in our database on at least 30 occasions. One of those concerned goods guard James O’Keeffe, who had an accident on 31 July 1911 at Molahiffe, County Kerry, Ireland.

Railway engine towing wagons with a rope.
Tow-roping at Willesden c.1915. The rope stretched from the locomotive tender (left of image) to the wagons, being moved onto a different set of tracks. Courtesy National Railway Museum.

Just before 6am, O’Keeffe was shunting two wagons into the single siding at Molahiffe, ‘a small wayside station’ on the single line Farranfore and Valencia branch. Because of the direction of travel, it wasn’t possible to use the engine to get the wagons directly into the siding. Instead it was necessary to tow-rope them in. While the engine and wagons were moving O’Keeffe detached the rope from the wagons and went to put their brakes on. However, this left the rope being dragged through the ballast; the hook on the end caught a point rod (part of the mechanical linkage used to change the direction of the points). O’Keeffe ran to clear the snag but couldn’t do so; the rod was broken, with a piece hitting O’Keeffe’s right leg.

Molahiffe station in 1956. The siding ran to the loading bank seen at the distant right of the image.
Courtesy Irish Railway Record Society.

Inspector JPS Main determined that O’Keeffe should have waited for the engine and wagons to have stopped before detaching the rope and as a result the accident was his fault. Main also noted that on average 6 wagons per week were dealt with by tow-roping. Although not very many, during winter months this operation would be performed in darkness, increasing the risks. As a result, Main suggested that the Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR) should try to find a solution which would do away with the need to use tow-roping (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B).

Working TimeTable page.
From the 1935 GSWR working timetable. Molahiffe station is listed as one at which tow-roping took place.
Courtesy: Gerard McMahon.

As always with these reports, we don’t know if those recommendations were acted upon – though following the initial publication of this post, discussion and help from members of the Irish Railway Record Society produced a copy of the GSWR working timetable for 1935 included instructions about tow-roping and a list of stations where it was practised. That included Molahiffe, so it looks like the changes weren’t made.

Tow-rope shuntig in action at Ardfert, 1976.
Tow-rope shuntig in action at Ardfert, 1976.
Courtesy: Gerard McMahon.

Further discussion with members of the Irish Railway Record Society has shown that tow-roping was still used in some County Kerry stations into the 1970s. Molahiffe closed in 1960, so wasn’t among them, but it would come as no surprise if tow-roping had continued here despite Main’s recommendation.


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