What Was the Tay Bridge Rail Disaster?

Garry Crystal

Everyone who has been born and brought up in Dundee knows the story of the Tay Bridge disaster. It was a dark time in the city's history. The Tay Bridge disaster is one of the most famous rail collapses ever recorded. At around 7:15 p.m. on 28 December 1879, a passenger train made its way across the two mile (3.2 km) long bridge towards Dundee. Neither the train nor any of its 75 passengers completed the journey.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The newly built Tay Bridge had only been in use for 19 months when the disaster occurred. It had been built by Thomas Bouch, who was knighted not long after the completion of the bridge. The bridge was made of a lattice of girders supported by cast iron columns. At the time, it was the longest bridge in the world.

The weather on the night of the disaster was recorded at a Beaufort force 10/11. The River Tay is an expansive stretch of water known for its strong undercurrents. As the train passed over the central spans, the Tay Bridge collapsed into the River Tay, taking the train, the six carriages, and the 75 passengers with it.

An enquiry was set up at the time to investigate the reason for the Tay Bridge collapse. Theories regarding bridge fatigue, train derailment, weather conditions, and the design of the bridge were put forward. The conclusion was that the bridge was under-designed for the force of weather that it encountered that fateful night.

At the time of the disaster, Sir Thomas Bouch was busy working on a new bridge called the Forth Bridge. When the Tay Bridge disaster was discovered to be a result of faulty design, the Forth Bridge design was handed over to Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. Among the fatalities of the Tay Bridge disaster was Thomas Bouch's son in law. Bouch was held responsible for the disaster, but doubts still exist as to the real reason for the collapse of the bridge. Sir Thomas Bouch was to die only a year after the Tay Bridge disaster.

In 1887, the second Tay rail bridge was completed. The construction of the bridge took almost four years and cost the lives of 14 men who were working on it. Most of these fatalities were due to drowning. The second Tay Bridge is still in use today.

In the years that have passed, many books and television shows have used the Tay Bridge disaster as their subject. Poems written about the disaster adorn the walls of many Dundee pubs. The stumps of the original bridge can still be seen protruding from the waters of the river. They stand close to the second bridge as a reminder of that fateful night.

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Discussion Comments


I'd never heard of this accident. How awful. I do remember the wreck in 1993 in Saraland, Alabama, where over 40 people were killed when an Amtrak train derailed on a bridge. A barge had smacked into the bridge the night before and the track was kinked.

I remember seeing the photos of the deceased, cover in sheets, lying on wooden decking. What stayed with me was that their feet were sticking out from the end of the sheets. Somehow, even though there was no blood or gore, that was even more disturbing.

I know accidents will happen with any means of transport, but I am glad there are more safety measures in place nowadays.

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