TWO rush-hour commuter trains packed with hundreds of passengers were just seconds away from disaster last night when a section of track dramatically plunged into the water moments after they passed over it.
Miraculously, nobody was killed after a 20-metre section of viaduct over Malahide estuary collapsed on the main Dublin-Belfast line seconds after a driver pulled into Malahide station in north Dublin.
But travel chaos ensued for hundreds of passengers stranded in Malahide and major disruption is expected in the weeks to come. The bridge sank into the fast flowing water of the estuary -- just after a train from Balbriggan to Dublin city centre crossed over at about 6.25pm.
And less than 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.
Subsidence on the line at the Malahide estuary is believed to be the cause of the viaduct collapse. Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny said the incident was very serious and could have resulted in widespread tragedy were it not for a quick-thinking train driver.
The driver noticed signs of subsidence on the track as he was crossing at around 6.25pm.
He immediately stopped the train in Malahide and alerted Irish Rail which suspended all services on the northern line.
"He was extremely observant and he immediately raised the alert," he said, noting that the railway control centre also received a red alert on its computer system as the bridge collapsed.
"The scale of the potential for disaster was enormous," he said. "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," Mr Kenny said. All rail services were suspended in either direction from Howth Junction last night as engineers raced to the scene of the collapse.
The Railway Accident Investigation Unit was also called out to the scene last night to investigate the cause of the bridge collapse.
Train services will be suspended north of Howth Junction this weekend and there will be serious disruption to regular commuter service north of Malahide and on the Enterprise line between Dublin and Belfast for weeks to come, Mr Kenny said. "It is a very lengthy disruption we're facing. It will be measured in weeks," he said.
Bus transfers were being arranged last night for alternative transport for passengers on the Enterprise line while thousands of stranded DART and commuter passengers were advised to seek alternative transport on Dublin Bus or Bus Eireann. Irish Rail expects it will announce a contingency plan for Northern commuter passengers by next week.
"Tonight the focus is very much on assessing the site but we'll definitely be able to advise people who are commuting by Monday," Mr Kenny said.
Meanwhile, long-time Malahide resident Joan McAllister, whose kitchen on Upper Strand overlooks the estuary, said her husband glanced out the window and saw two of the viaducts arches give way and collapse into the sea.
"Both tracks are gone. There are cables sticking out of the bridge and two of the arches have fallen into the water," she said. Despite the mayhem, some people in the area didn't even notice what was going on, she added. "There were people sailing on sailboards who didn't even notice," she said.
But across the estuary in Malahide it was another story with hundreds of confused commuter train and DART passengers milling about at the station trying to find alternative transport, said local resident Des Byrne. "It's causing chaos. People are getting off trains and don't know what to do," he said.