A train driver who averted a potential disaster involving hundreds of passengers by alerting authorities when he saw a viaduct giving way said last night his legs had turned to jelly with the shock.
Around 20,000 passengers on the Belfast to Dublin and northern commuter rail line will have their rail journeys disrupted for at least three months after the "extremely serious incident" when part of a viaduct fell into the sea in the Malahide estuary outside Dublin minutes ahead of trains packed with hundreds of commuters.
What could have been Ireland's worst rail disaster was averted only by the quick thinking of a train driver Keith Farrelly (33) who noticed signs of subsidence on the track as he was crossing over the viaduct at 6.25pm on Friday.
He immediately stopped his train at Malahide and alerted Irish Rail which suspended services on the northern line.
Last night the heroic driver, from Dublin and based in Connolly Station, described what happened.
"The first inkling I had that something was wrong was when I noticed water splashing up to a high level. In that location, it's not a normal thing to happen, so I looked at the northbound line and saw that the viaduct was giving way and that the track was hanging.
"The Dundalk train had just gone over the bridge it was a very close call" he told the Sunday Independent last night. "I saw the bridge start to collapse as I was going over it, it was a scary situation, it was pretty hairy I tell you . . . it was surreal. I was just relieved that we got past. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, the waves were coming up over the side of it, I thought I was seeing things"
"Immediately then I could feel the ballast moving on the line beneath my train and realised the danger we were in. My defensive driving training kicked in and I decided to coast the train in, lightly braking, so I didn't put pressure on the track, and ensured we had momentum to get us safely to the station.
"When I arrived at Malahide Station I protected both lines, and alerted Control. It was such an unreal sight, I started thinking to myself 'did I really see that', but when I walked back I saw it clearly, and my legs just went to jelly with the shock.
"I'm just glad that all of us on board walked away from it safely," he said.
Engineers had inspected the viaduct on the main Dublin to Belfast line only last Tuesday, but heavy rain in the following days may have played a part in a 20-metre section of the viaduct falling into the fast flowing waters of the estuary just before 6.30pm on Friday.
Yesterday, Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny said it would cost several million euros and take at least three months to repair the viaduct but this would be made more difficult by strong tides.
"The scale of the potential disaster was enormous. The fact that nobody was hurt and there wasn't a derailment doesn't take away from the fact that this was very close to being a very serious tragedy," he said.
The incident happened on the line which has seen the heaviest freight use of any railway section in the Republic, with trains weighing up to 800 tonnes taking iron ore from Tara Mines using the line in the past.
The narrowly averted disaster saw a train from Balbriggan to Dublin city centre crossing over the viaduct at 6.25pm with around 50 passengers on board. Less then five minutes before that a full northbound commuter train with hundreds of passengers on board passed over the viaduct at 6.20pm en route to Dundalk.
The busy line had also seen a Belfast train pass over the viaduct at 6pm; while the 19.00 Dublin to Belfast train travelling at 70mph carrying hundreds of passengers was due to cross the viaduct also.
Around 90 trains a day pass over the bridge. When the bridge collapsed the railway control centre was also alerted via its computer system. The viaduct and bridge were built in the late Sixties to replace a bridge built in 1848.
Mr Kenny said yesterday that different sections of railway tracks were walked three times a week; there was a major structural inspection every two years, and this particular viaduct had been inspected on Tuesday.
As well as an investigation by Iarnrod Eireann, the rail accident investigation unit of the Department of Transport was also carrying out an inquiry.
Thousands of GAA fans travelling from Tyrone to Croke Park today for the All-Ireland football semi-final will be affected by the rail closure.
Iarnrod Eireann said last night that northern commuter services will be seriously disrupted by the incident. A shuttle rail service is currently operating between Drogheda and Skerries only. Customers travelling between Dublin city and all stations north of Malahide were advised to travel by Dublin Bus or Bus Eireann services.
Trains were operating between Dundalk, Drogheda and Skerries and the company are working with Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann to provide enhanced services on existing routes serving the communities affected.
The rail company said that for the duration of the disruption, Belfast Enterprise services will operate with train services between Belfast and Drogheda and with bus transfers between Drogheda and Connolly.
Dart services between Malahide and Howth Junction are operating normally.