Railroad Accidents

MAY, 1907


DURING the celebration attending the opening of the first passenger railroad, the Honorable William Huskisson, Member of Parliament for Liverpool, was run down and killed by the locomotive Rocket, that wonderful product of the brain of Stephenson which was to revolutionize modern industrial life. To an expectant world, eager for a practical demonstration of the power of this new motive force, the death of the English statesman uttered a tragic warning that the tremendous industrial possibilities of this great invention were not to be achieved without the sacrifice of human life. Although three quarters of a century have passed since the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railway, there has not been a day in all those years in which danger and death have not hung like a cloud over the railroad industry.

A series of unusual disasters in the United States during the past few months has roused the public as never before to an appreciation of the perils of modern railroading, and to a determination to discover whether these hazards are inevitably associated with train operation. To answer in part this oft-repeated question is the purpose of this article.

From the last published report of the statistician of the Interstate Commerce Commission, we learn that during the year ending June 30, 1905, 9703 persons were killed, and 86,008 persons injured, in railroad accidents in the United States. Of this number, 270 persons were killed, and 30,395 injured in accidents having no connection with train movement. Of the accidents related in some way to train operation, 4865 deaths and 5251 injuries were the result of trespassing. Other persons, who were neither trespassers nor travelers, accounted for 862 deaths and 3063 injuries, and employees other than trainmen for 1183 deaths and 7201 injuries. Of those more directly connected with train movement, 533 passengers were killed and 10,245 injured; and 1990 trainmen were killed and 29,853 injured. A tabular presentation of these facts follows : —


ENDING JUNE 30, 1905

Killed. Injured.

From train movement:

Passengers 533 10,245

Trainmen 1,990 29,853

Other employees 1,183 7,201

Trespassers 4,865 5,251

Other persons, not trespassers 862 3,063

9,433 55,613

From causes other than train movement:

Passengers 4 212

Employees 188 29,779

Other persons 78 404

270 30,395

Total killed and injured 9,703 86,008

Causes of accident “other than train movement” include the handling of traffic, tools and machinery, and getting off and on trains while at rest. In this class of accidents, injuries far exceed deaths, the largest number taking place among shopmen. Accidents of a similar character occur in other industries, frequently in greater numbers, and these figures should be eliminated in discussing the peculiarly hazardous character of the railroad industry.

“Trespassers ” mainly consist of persons stealing rides, and those walking on railroad tracks. The railroad police systems must be relied upon to eradicate the first of these evils. This article does not contemplate a discussion of the tramp problem or the training of children. Walking on tracks is purely an American diversion. It is forbidden by law in England and on the Continent, and should be here. But even with laws on our statute books, the evil will not cease until Americans have outgrown their genial habit of appropriating to public use all property that is not securely fenced. Until that time comes, we shall have to fall back upon the principle of caveat viator.

The grade-crossing danger has been recognized for many years as the penalty we are paying for rapid and cheap construction of railroad lines. Deaths at highway crossings during the year 1905 numbered 838 and injuries 1574. Many states have taken steps to atone for their early short-sightedness by passing statutes that provide for the gradual elimination of crossings at grade, a movement in which Massachusetts has taken the lead These laws usually provide that the expense incident to the condemnation of land and the construction shall be divided between the railroad, the state, and the town. Most of the larger cities have also put an end to the earlier practice of allowing railroads to enter their terminals at grade by the use of the city streets. In some sections where the overhead crossing is not practicable, gates or flagmen have been provided; and sometimes, when railroads are equipped with signal-systems, crossing warnings are interlocked with the block signals. All these safeguards should be rapidly extended, but responsibility for such extension rests upon the states, and not upon the national government.

It is upon train accidents that public attention is mainly centred, and it is the appalling total of casualties of this character that has led to such severe denunciation of our reckless railroading, and to frequent unfavorable comparisons with results in England. Such comparisons are often inaccurate and misleading. That accidents are less numerous in England than here is undoubtedly true. We have no such record as that of England for the eighteen months ending March 31,1902, when not a single passenger was killed. But statistics are not available that will allow fully for dissimilarity of conditions and permit of accurate comparison.

The most careful and scientific study of this question which has been attempted was published by Professor Carroll W. Doten in the Publications of the American Statistical Association in March, 1905. From that study the following comparisons are drawn. They relate to the year 1903.

United Kingdom. United States.
Train Accidents to Passengers :
Killed per million trainmiles 0.06 0.18
Injured per million trainmiles 2.0 4.7
Killed per million carried 0.02 0.25
Injured per million carried 0.6 6.7
Accidents to Trainmen :
Killed per million trainmiles 0.18 2.02
Injured per million trainmiles 4.1 24.6
Killed per thousand employed 0.9 8.0
Injured per thousand employed 20.6 97.0

While these averages do not account for all variations in conditions in the two countries, they establish beyond dispute the greater safety of English travel.

Accidents to trainmen, as shown in the table for 1905, and again in the comparative statistics just presented, are by far the most serious. In the United States in 1905 one trainman was killed for every 133 employed, and one was injured for every nine employed. The life of the trainman is undoubtedly the most hazardous in modern industry.

With only those accidents to trainmen which result from coupling cars, falling from trains, and striking overhead obstructions has the federal government concerned itself. Inasmuch as federal intervention in many different forms is being urged as a means of relief from our present difficulties, it is desirable to consider the Safety-Appliance Acts somewhat in detail. When the agitation for uniform safety appliances was begun by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1889, the subject was not a new one. Railroad journals had for years advocated reforms, state railroad commissions had discussed the question, and in some states, such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan, laws had been enacted requiring the use of the automatic coupler on all new cars constructed. But these state laws had complicated rather than relieved the situation, for they had led to the adoption of special types of couplers for the different states, which would not couple with cars of other states not similarly equipped, creating a situation more dangerous than that which it was designed to correct. The Master Car Builders Association, a representative organization of railroad men engaged in practical construction, had approved in 1888 a standard type of automatic coupler; but roads had been slow to adopt the device. The expense was a hindrance, as was the opposition of manufacturers whose couplers did not meet the requirements of the standard. But a more serious objection was that such a device was not likely at once to become universal, and with the prevalence of the system of car interchange between different railroad systems, roads would be compelled to use both automatic and hand couplers with all the added risks of such an illmated alliance. By 1889 a few of the large roads had adopted the Master Car Builders type, some were experimenting, some were actively hostile, but the majority were either indifferent or in a waiting mood.

With this problem was associated that of a standard height of drawbar or coupler head that should insure perfect coupling. Such a standard had been established by the Car Builders in 1872, but was generally disregarded.

The situation regarding continuous train brakes operated from the locomotive was more favorable, although by no means ideal. From the time of the inventions of Westinghouse in 1869 and 1871, the railroads had taken great interest in this device and had made constant tests. Its possibilities as a lifesaver were seen in the power to stop the train within a shorter distance, in the automatic application of the brakes upon the parting of a train, and in the relief to trainmen from the necessity of traversing the tops of cars. Moreover it appeared to have economic advantages in rendering possible the running of heavier trains at higher speed. Yet the expense of installation, the need of uniform action by all roads, and the delay in making up trains with cars only partly equipped with the new device, interfered with rapid adoption of the invention. The train brake was almost universal in 1889 on passenger cars, but was in general use in freight service only on lines which handled trains for long distances without much reliance upon foreign cars, that is, on roads west of the Missouri River.

Much the same problem existed with reference to grab-irons and hand-holds on the ends and sides of cars. Finally a series of frightful accidents had attracted public attention to the danger of heating trains with the car stove, and laws had been enacted in some states to do away with this method. But if cars were to be interchanged between different roads, it was necessary that some uniform system of train-heating should be adopted, and the difficulties of adjustment had not yet been eliminated.

With this situation in mind, the Interstate Commerce Commission began its agitation in 1889 for the abolition of the awkward, expensive, and mechanically defective hand coupler, for a standard height of drawbar, and for systems of continuous braking and heating. Uniformity in practice was the urgent need, and it appeared that such uniformity was not to be had without federal regulation. This position the state railroad commissions universally indorsed. The first national Safety-Appliance Act, passed March 2, 1893, made it unlawful after January 1, 1898, for any road engaged in interstate commerce to use on its line in interstate traffic any locomotive not equipped with a power driving-wheel brake and appliances for operating the train-brake system, or to run any train in such traffic that had not a sufficient number of cars so equipped that the engineer could control the train without the use of hand brakes. It was also made unlawful to haul in interstate commerce any cars not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and not capable of being uncoupled without compelling men to go between the ends of the cars. Carriers were authorized to refuse to receive cars not lawfully equipped. It was further made unlawful after January 1, 1895, to use in interstate commerce any car not provided with secure grab-irons and hand-holds on the ends and sides of cars. The American Railway Association was authorized to recommend a standard height of drawbar, which was to be embodied in an order by the Commission, and all cars were required to comply with this standard. The heating problem was not covered by the statute. This problem applied mainly to passenger traffic, concerning the safety of which railroads had always been actively solicitous, and it appeared that the question was being rapidly solved by the railroads themselves.

The American Railway Association promptly complied with the suggestion of the law relative to drawbar height, and the Commission was able to announce the standard one month after the passage of the act. The time limit for compliance with the brake and coupler provisions was twice extended, and the law did not become fully operative until August 1, 1900. Experience soon demonstrated the need of amendment. The requirement that a “ sufficient ” number of cars should be equipped with train brakes to insure control, proved too indefinite to be enforceable, and by act of March 2, 1903, it was prescribed that a minimum of 50 per cent of the cars in a train should be so equipped. Power being given to the Commission to extend the minimum, it was made 75 per cent on August 1, 1906, and so remains.

To secure enforcement of the law, and to gather information that would aid in perfecting the methods of regulation, the Commission in 1893 appointed an inspector to examine railroad equipment. Aided by congressional appropriation, this practice has been extended until the force of inspection now numbers eighteen men. They are all persons of several years’ experience in train operation, and are carefully selected with the aid of the Civil Service Commission. Rides for inspection have been drawn up by the Commission in consultation with railroad managers, and inspections are openly made, usually with the cordial approval and assistance of railroad officials. The reports of inspectors in recent years have disclosed the fact that violations of law, which are almost entirely confined to freight equipment, have consisted not so much in failure to provide the appliances demanded as in neglect to maintain these appliances in working order. This has added a new element of danger, for trainmen have been led to rely upon the satisfactory working of an automatic device which has sometimes failed at a critical moment. Carelessness of trainmen and a failure on their part to realize the necessity of perfect maintenance have been constant causes of complaint. But the situation is improving rapidly, and conditions are now more favorable than at any time since the passage of the original law. Instruction cars, testing plants, and traveling inspectors in the employ of the railroads are becoming common. Coupling devices are increasing in strength, and there is a tendency toward uniformity in the make of coupler employed. The standard height of drawbar is almost universally adopted, and it is unusual to find cars lacking in proper grab-irons and hand-holds. Air-brake equipment shows marked improvement, and since the 75 per cent minimum order went into effect, the situation has bettered to such an extent that it is probable that freight trains will soon be controlled wholly by power brakes. Many old and poorly equipped cars, which are a source of danger when placed between new and stronger ones, have been retired, and rules have been adopted on some roads providing for separate grouping of heavy and light cars in the interest of safety. Local agreements for the exchange of cars between connecting roads have been largely abrogated, and it is a well-nigh universal practice at present for roads to refuse to receive or deliver cars in interchange, not equipped in accordance with law. Prosecutions against violators of the statute have been pushed vigorously. The statistics for 1905 show that 87 per cent of the equipment used in interstate commerce was provided with the train brake, and 99 per cent with the automatic coupler. What is still further needed is authority on the part of the Commission to require the maintenance of the old hand brakes, which have in many cases been allowed to deteriorate, but which still must be relied upon in switching, and the extension of the act to cover the other appliances listed in the Master Car Builders’ standards of protection to trainmen, such as sill-steps, ladders, and roof handholds. It is to be hoped that some device may also be invented that will relieve trainmen from the necessity of going between cars to couple and uncouple steam hose. Finally, an increase in the force of inspection is desirable, in order to meet the increase in railroad equipment and the increasing number of complaints demanding investigation. But these are mere details in comparison with what has been accomplished. Congress wisely did not prescribe definite appliances, but laid down general requirements in the interest of safety. In the same spirit the Commission has persistently refused to settle controversies between roads as to the best appliance for adoption. The problem has been worked out by the roads themselves, aided by their efficient organizations of employees and officials, and supported cordially by the Commission through its secretary and his corps of inspectors.

What then have been the results of this legislation? It is gratifying to observe from the following table that deaths and injuries to employees from the causes discussed show a marked decrease.


Killed. Injured. Killed. Injured.
1893 50 1,290 82 486
1894 33 940 64 425
1895 37 1,043 65 467
1890 28 1,031 65 519
1897 26 766 55 488
1898 32 803 60 489
1899 28 735 55 478
1900 28 518 58 480
1901 19 259 49 405
1902 14 243 49 457
1903 21 271 49 454
1904 24 312 50 508
1905 17 257 39 451

This decrease in accidents is even more favorable than at first appears, for it has taken place coincidently with an expansion of business which has resulted in the crowding of tracks and terminals and the employment of large numbers of inexperienced men, and with the increased use of heavy equipment and long trains, which has introduced additional elements of risk. Accidents still take place, but they are largely due either to lack of proper maintenance of safety appliances, for which trainmen themselves are in part responsible, or to reckless disregard of ordinary safeguards. The Safety-Appliance Acts seem in large measure to have fulfilled their function, and a further reduction of accidents from these causes must be almost altogether a matter of discipline. The statute may have been unnecessary in the case of well-managed railroad systems, but its justification lies in the fact that without the intervention of Congress these same systems, by reason of the prevalence of car interchange, would have been put at the mercy of less efficient roads.

Finally, it is interesting to observe that this movement in the interest of safety to trainmen has brought abundant return to the railroads in economies of operation. Time is saved in the making-up of trains through the use of the coupler, and in train movement through the air-brake. Switching force and equipment have been economized. Damage claims for accidents of this character have become smaller. But, most significant of all, the great economies of modern transportation that have resulted from larger equipment and longer trains would have been quite impossible of realization without the use of these devices which the SafetyAppliance Acts have prescribed.

Leaving the classes of casualties against which safeguards have been provided by statute, we turn to collisions and derailments, which have for years been responsible for most of the serious accidents. While a welcome diminution in casualties may appear now and then, the situation as a whole shows no improvement, but on the contrary a disheartening monotony of results and causes. In studying accidents of this character, we are greatly assisted by a law of March 3, 1901, which requires railroads under oath to make monthly reports of all collisions and derailments and of all accidents to passengers, and to employees while on duty, with the attendant circumstances. These reports are published by the Commission in the form of quarterly bulletins, the circumstances of the more prominent accidents being given. The information is not wholly satisfactory, for officials exercise their own judgment in deciding what they shall return to the Commission. The explanations are in the briefest form, and obviously become less reliable the nearer the responsibility for the accident approaches the official making the report. The following table shows the results of collisions and derailments for the past five years : —


Year ending June 30. Killed. Injured.
1902 821 7,937
1903 987 9,844
1904 1,018 10,244
1905 1,064 11,949
1906 977 12,686

The bulletin for the quarter ending September 30, 1906, showed an increase of 129 passengers and employees killed over the corresponding period for 1905. This increase, when considered in connection with the series of fatal accidents that have occurred during the past six months, warrants the conclusion that, unless an extraordinary immunity from accident is enjoyed during the next quarter, the total for 1907 will far exceed that for 1906.

In classifying the causes that produce collisions and derailments we shall leave out of consideration those which are beyond the control of the railroad management or its employees, such as flood, wind, fire, and the acts of miscreants, and also disasters resulting from defects in equipment, such as broken rails and wheels, parted couplers, and the like. Some of these could doubtless have been prevented by more rigid inspection, but many of them we are compelled to regard as unavoidable. With these eliminations, the great majority of accidents may be traced to four causes: high speed of trains, inexperience and overwork of employees, and negligence.

Speed as a cause of accident needs interpretation. A favorite text for newspaper sermons is the reckless speed of our long-distance passenger trains, and the insane efforts of competing roads to clip a few more minutes off the schedule. There is some question whether the eighteen-hour trains between New York and Chicago meet any real economic need, except possibly as an aid to the financial legerdemain of a few Wall Street financiers. Yet they gratify a genuine American desire for speed for speed’s sake, and as advertising agencies are well worth while. Are they as dangerous as is sometimes supposed ? England, our exemplar in the matter of safety in railroad travel, runs more high-speed trains than do we, and a glance through our accident bulletins reveals the fact that high speed as such is not an important cause of accident. The fact that accidents due to high speed take place on prominent roads, and involve well-known trains, and that such accidents may result in serious consequences, has led us to overestimate the risks of fast travel. High-speed trains are found usually only on double-track roads that are most efficiently safeguarded with block-signal and interlocking systems, and manned by thoroughly disciplined forces of employees. Most of the accidents attributed to high speed are due to the failure of the engineman or other trainman properly to control speed at danger points, such as switches and stations, and should be charged to negligence. Taking a curve at too high a speed is usually due to the negligence either of the engineman who disregards instructions (as was the case in the terrible accident at Salisbury, England), or of the officials in failing to determine with scientific accuracy the limits of safety.

Inexperience usually means negligence, but the real blame in such cases seems to rest with officials who have placed in responsible positions men with too little knowledge of their duties. Inexperience as an assigned cause of accidents involves trainmen of all classes, — some of whom may have been long in service, but are unfamiliar with the division of the road upon which the accident takes place,— and operators at stations, signal-men, and switchmen. The risks resulting from inexperience are greatly increased with the growth of traffic and the constant demand for more help. The railroad manager hears on the one hand the cry of the shipper for quicker service, and on the other the demand of the traveling public that their lives shall not be intrusted to the care of an untrained force. Whether more could be done to overcome the difficulty will be discussed later, but it is only fair to railroad managements to admit that in a time of such extraordinary industrial expansion the constant maintenance of a well-seasoned force of men is a virtual impossibility. Moreover, the railroad manager is probably interpreting correctly the demand of the American public when he concludes that on the whole they prefer service to safety. Overwork has received wide attention from the public during the past year, and the railroads have been censured severely by the press for what has seemed to be a flagrant disregard of their public duty. It is difficult to reach a definitive conclusion as to the seriousness of this evil, for the facts are not available. Reports to the Commission are not complete in respect to hours on duty, and it is impossible to decide how far negligence may be attributed to weariness. The Commission’s judgment is that the number of instances where employees have been on duty an excessive number of hours warrants the inference that overwork is a more or less frequent cause of accident, and we occasionally hear of a case so flagrant as almost to destroy altogether our confidence in railroad management. The Massachusetts Railroad Commission reports an accident in November, 1905, in which the engineman had worked sixteen hours per day for five successive days in the week preceding the collision. The South Carolina Commission is responsible for the statement that in a collision in that state in January, 1906, the trainmen had been on duty for 25 hours and 32 minutes, and that the whole train crew was asleep at the time of the accident. But perhaps the most startling case is that reported in the Commission’s Accident Bulletin number 19, in which both engineman and fireman were asleep, and during the 74 hours previous to the collision had been on duty as follows: on duty, 14 1/2 hours; off duty, 4 1/2 hours; on duty, 14 hours; off duty, 4 1/2 hours; on duty,22 hours; off duty,4 hours; on duty, 10 1/2 hours. The report states that, after the 22-hour period, the engineman requested that he be allowed to be called for a certain train in order that he might reach home sooner; that he could have been relieved by another engineman if he had made a request to that effect. But why should it have been left to the judgment of the engineman ?

Yet a uniform working day for trainmen is not easy to establish, for the question of hours is linked with the complicated system of train movement. There are fluctuations in the quantity of transportation from week to week, creating variations in the number of train movements required. Men are paid mostly on the mileage basis, and are eager to earn as high wages as possible. Train masters, struggling with congestion of traffic, dispatch trains as rapidly as the capacity of the road will permit. The men prefer, and in large measure secure, “turn runs ” by which their rest time can be spent at home, and the vicious principle of “first in, first out” is almost universally prevalent. The serious difficulty is in the freight service, where delays of every conceivable kind occur, increased by the heavy traffic and the lack of adequate terminal and siding facilities; and the superintendent, pressed on one side by insistent shippers and a congested freightyard, and on the other by men desirous of arranging their runs on the basis of the greatest revenue and comfort, permits the men practically to determine the length of their working day. We hear the charge made by the railroads that the dominance of the trade-union interferes with the employment of a larger force of men, and the assertion that men work overtime at their own request until an accident occurs, and then shift responsibility upon the management. Railroads insist that they have rules which forbid men to work beyond a reasonable number of hours, except in emergencies, and in the same breath they admit that the freight service is one uninterrupted emergency. They protest that any absolute limitation upon the hours of trainmen would seriously affect the business community by requiring the rearrangement of divisions and terminals, and would interfere with the domestic comfort of their employees by compelling them to change their residences. Then they plead that the financial burden of the necessary shift of terminals and of the required increase of labor force would be beyond their ability to bear.

Such arguments did not prove sufficiently convincing to prevent, at the session of Congress just ended, the passage of the La Follette bill in a somewhat amended form. This measure makes it unlawful, after March 4, 1908, for any trainman employed in interstate commerce to work more than sixteen consecutive hours, or to resume work until he has been off duty for ten hours. It also makes it unlawful for him to work more than sixteen hours in the aggregate during a twenty-four-hour period, without eight hours’ rest, even if the working hours are not continuous. Dispatchers and operators in important offices are limited to nine hours per day,and in all other offices to thirteen hours. Exceptions to the act are allowed only in case of unavoidable accidents, or delays due to causes that could not be known when the employee left the terminal and started on his run. While the exception clause leaves a large opportunity for overwork, the act goes as far as Congress ought to go under present conditions in the direction of restrictive legislation. In fact, if the public could rely upon voluntary agreements between railroads and their employees for the solution of the question, results would doubtless be much more satisfactory, for no hard-and-fast statute can meet the innumerable and varying situations in train operation. This latest example of government interference is probably justified, but even with the statute in effect, the results hoped for can never be secured without the maintenance by operating officers of a rigid system of discipline.

Negligence wall explain a very large proportion of railroad accidents, and many of the practices which fall under this designation are so persistent and apparently so ineradicable that they have come to be regarded by many as inherent in our present methods of train handling. Before the introduction of the telegraph, trains in this country were operated, after the first crude beginnings, solely by means of the time-table, and each crew was supposed to take care of its own welfare and the welfare of those in its charge. Great reluctance was shown to the use of Morse’s invention, even after its utility had been demonstrated, because it was feared that it would have a tendency to relieve trainmen of responsibility, and to lower the discipline of the service. As late as the seventies, many roads were running trains solely by time-table and guesswork. But the time-interval system, with the aid of telegraphic communication, is now the prevailing practice. In fact, much the greater number of trains are not scheduled at all, but are under the direction solely of the train dispatcher. The task of this individual is serious enough on double-track roads, but on single-track lines, with heavy traffic, the problem is one of extreme intricacy, calling for the exercise of the utmost coolness and vigilance. It is a tribute to his skill and to the efficiency of the rules under which he works, that collisions are comparatively so infrequent. The weakness of the system lies in the fact that the execution of an order requires the perfect coöperation of several individuals. The message must pass from dispatcher to station operator, and thence to conductor and engineman. If there is a slip anywhere in the course of transmission, the conditions of disaster are present. A glance at the causes of accident in the Commission’s bulletins reveals the startling character of this weakness. Again and again we read such explanations as these: dispatcher sends conflicting orders; dispatcher makes mistake in keeping his record; operator fails to deliver order, copies order incorrectly, forgets or fails to deliver order, delivers wrong order; conductor misreads order, fails to deliver order to engineman. This time-interval system further necessitates devices to prevent collision when unforeseen stops occur out of reach of telegraphic communication. For such emergencies, flags, torpedoes, and fusees are used. The accident record tells its tale of improper flagging, miscalculation of distance, and laziness of rear brakemen. But this is not the whole story. When orders have been correctly delivered and correctly understood, we find accidents attributed to uncertainty, neglect to identify trains that are met, mistakes in reading time, miscalculation of speed, running ahead or behind schedule,and “taking chances.” Doubtless many accidents would not take place if all railroad systems were double-tracked and trains were no longer compelled to make meeting points. But the very large amount of mileage in regions of light traffic makes such a means of relief impracticable for many years to come. Less than one tenth of the total mileage of the country at present is double-tracked.

It is not surprising, in view of the difficulties of operation under such a system, and the impossibility of obtaining at all times perfect obedience to orders, that there should have been a demand for a scheme of train handling that would eliminate to some extent at least the human factor. England had set us an example by the early adoption of the block system. This system, which was employed there in principle almost from the beginning, had become practically universal in the British Isles by 1870, and is now required by law.

The system is simplicity itself. It merely substitutes an interval of space for an interval of time. It divides a road into sections of a length varying with the demands of traffic and the exigencies of the system, and in its strict application allows only one train in a section at a time, the movements of trains being controlled by signals placed at each end of the block. It is not within the purpose of this article to discuss the merits of the various forms of block signaling, but a mere statement of the different systems in use may prove helpful. The simplest form is the “telegraph ” block, in which the signals are operated manually, and communication between the signal towers at each end of the block is maintained by telegraph or telephone. The “controlled manual” system varies from the “telegraph ” block in the fact that signals are locked electrically, so that a signalman cannot clear his signal without the coöperation of the operator at the other end of the block. The “staff” system, used extensively in England, consists of staff instruments placed at either end of the block, containing staffs of metal, and so interlocked that when a staff is removed from one instrument, both instruments are locked until the staff is returned to one of them, the possession of the staff thus giving the engineman right of way in the block. This system is used to advantage on difficult stretches of mountain road, or where trains of several divisions or roads operate for considerable distances over one pair of rails. The “automatic” system dispenses with the signalman, and the signals at either end of the block are connected electrically and operated by the entrance of the train into the section. This automatic system, which has now been perfected until it is considered by experts to be perfectly reliable, has the added advantage that by the automatic setting of signals at danger, it gives notice of defects in roadway, such as broken rails, or open drawbridges or switches. It is peculiarly an American device, and has been adopted to a slight extent elsewhere. Only with extreme reluctance has the British Board of Trade given consent for its installation. This is to be explained partly by a natural reluctance to abandon a system so long and so successfully used, and partly by the fact that signalmen in England perform many useful services in the inspection of trains outside of their strict duties at the signal tower.

For further safety and efficiency, the block system proper must be accompanied by “interlocking,” an arrangement of signals employed at terminals, junctions, crossings, and sidings, so interlocked with the block signals that it is impossible for a signal to show clear when switches and “derails ” are improperly set. In this feature of safety appliances, the American roads are deficient. We have not, as has England, developed the two side by side. The unusual expenditure required for initial installation has delayed the fulfillment of a well-recognized duty. But there is universal indorsement by railroad men of the block system in general. It is the opinion of many signal experts that the time is coming when trains will be handled with perfect safety, even on single tracks, without the issuance of a single train order.

The block system has been gradually introduced upon American roads during the last fifteen or twenty years, although it has sometimes required a serious collision to furnish the needed stimulus. Most railroads of any importance now use it on a part of their lines; some use it for a part of the time, when traffic demands; some have introduced the principle, but its application has been defeated by insufficient regulation and control. The Commission’s recent report to Congress shows that the aggregate length of line in the United States equipped with block signals in September, 1906, was 48,743 miles, about one fifth of the total mileage, of which 6827 miles was automatic.

Although comparative statistics are obviously not available, it is generally conceded that under the block system collisions are very much less frequent. The device gives the engineman more definite information of conditions immediately ahead of him, and in limiting the field of his responsibility, decreases the chances of accident. Undoubtedly the cost of installation explains the deliberateness with which the system has been introduced upon American roads; yet it is not at all clear that it would not prove to be a real economic gain, as in the case of automatic couplers and train brakes. Reduction of damage and injury claims would be no small factor. The general manager of an American road recently estimated that during the past year, in the matter of butting collisions alone, the automatic block system on his single-track road had saved the company $120,000 above the cost of maintenance and betterment of the plant. But of more importance is the fact that the block system makes possible a considerable reduction of the interval of time between trains that safe operation requires, and proportionately increases the efficiency of the line.

The delay in installing the block system in the face of its obvious advantages led the Interstate Commerce Commission three years ago to prepare the draft of a bill on the lines of English legislation, providing for the gradual introduction of the system on American roads. The Commission wisely forbore to prescribe any type of mechanism, but, as in the SafetyAppliance Acts, laid down a policy and left its detailed execution to railroad experts. The bill was a recognition of the fact that, while enlightened selfishness might be relied upon to introduce safeguards as rapidly as practicable on many of the better systems, the authority of law was necessary to stimulate the laggards. It has twice been introduced in the House by Representative Esch of Wisconsin. A resolution of Congress last June directed the Commission to investigate “the use of and necessity for” block-signal systems, and its report, already referred to, was presented just at the close of the last session. As Congress had its interest newly aroused by the terrible accident last December in the very shadow of the Capitol, some action in the near future seems not improbable.

But the block system, even if universally installed, would not eliminate dependence upon the human element for safety in travel. The accident bulletins give the following causes of accident upon roads equipped with the block system: running past signals, failing to see signals, false clear signal given, misunderstanding by signalman of telegraphic order, lack of caution under permission to proceed with block occupied. The only adequate remedy thus far found for such contingencies is the automatic stop, in successful use in the New York Subway, and on the Boston Elevated, which automatically sets the brakes on a train that passes a danger signal. As this device has never had its utility thoroughly proved in the case of open roads, where the difficulties of installation are numerous, and where ice and snow may interfere with satisfactory operation, it may be set aside at present as impracticable.1

We are thrown back then upon the one hope of better discipline and a more highly developed morale among employees. How to enforce better discipline among the men is the problem that is trying the souls of many of the best railroad managers; how to compel managers of a less conscientious type to enforce discipline more rigidly is a question that has troubled the mind of many an observer of railroad-operating practice. It is easy to throw the blame for failure of discipline upon the guilty trainman when the accident occurs; but who is at fault for the lowered tone of the whole service that makes this particular breach of discipline inevitable ? How long will the public continue to regard accidents due to such causes as “unavoidable,”and ascribe them with a shrug of the shoulders to the frailty of human nature ? Charles Francis Adams as early as 1879 wrote that “the only thing left with some men who are not accessible to argument, or to the teachings of experience, is the gentle stimulant of a criminal prosecution.” His suggestion is still pertinent, for we have never yet had the courage to apply the drastic remedy. The extreme difficulty of the problem should not be underestimated. The demands of traffic with developing industry have concentrated attention upon the heavy train-load as the ideal of operating efficiency, and have greatly increased, in ways already suggested, the perplexities of the disciplinary problem. Yet the public has a right to presume that what one railroad can do in this respect is not impossible for another, and to demand that the discipline of all shall be raised to the level of the best. This involves in the first place an attitude on the part of operating officials that will dispel from the minds of trainmen any impression that the management will wink at disobedience to orders, provided only the schedules are adhered to. It means a vigorous reform in the methods of examination of men for positions of danger and responsibility, tests that shall insure more than good eyes, and a working knowledge of a locomotive. It means a longer and more carefully watched apprenticeship, by no means an easy matter when men are so much in demand and tenure is so brief. It means schools of instruction, in which causes of accident and their avoidance shall be studied, and in which men shall be tested constantly on train rules and emergency methods. It means “ surprise checking “and instant application of penalties, without a hearing, for failure to meet the tests imposed. It may mean higher wages and more men, and it will probably mean pensions or other beneficiary systems. Discipline means, in a word, a thorough and continuous system of inspection; yet railroads as a whole, according to B. B. Adams of the Railroad Gazette, give to instruction of their trainmen less attention than they do to the inspection of a mechanical appliance such as the air-brake. He says, “From the standpoint of the thoughtful passenger, it must seem utterly ridiculous to constantly watch trainmen to see if their shoes are blacked and their faces shaved, while taking no measures to see whether men charged with the safely of passengers’ lives are not daily disobeying some vital rule.”

Railroads frequently complain of the effects of trade-unionism on discipline, and of the compulsion which employees’ organizations bring to bear to retain inefficient men or to reinstate those who have been discharged for infractions of discipline. This is a question upon which it is impossible to pass final judgment. It would appear, however, that such difficulties are not insurmountable when handled by firm and tactful superintendents. Certain it is that, such a pretext cannot and will not long be permitted to stand in the way of a discipline adequate to guard the public safety.

Finally, the traveling public itself has some difficult lessons to learn. Impatience of delay and an insane desire for speed at any price have had not a little influence in leading trainmen and superintendents to take chances.

But one further remedy for the present situation, of a more general character, should be mentioned, a plan which has received wide acceptance from railroad officers and the technical press, and has been recommended by the Commission to Congress in its recent block-signal report. This proposal contemplates the creation of a board for the proper investigation, by federal authority, of accidents upon interstate railroads. Such a system has been recognized in principle in England since 1840, and by formal statute since 1871. This law compels railroads to give notice to the Railway Department of the Board of Trade of any accident resulting in loss of life or personal injury, or of any accident likely to have had such a result. Four inspectors detailed from the Royal Engineers, with several assistants, constitute the investigating body. The inspector proceeds to the scene of the accident, clothed with power to hold an inquiry, summon any person as a witness, and require the production of any relevant document. This inquiry is purely informal, the purpose being to obtain information, not to inflict penalties. Judicial investigations may be made, but are seldom required. In such cases, a magistrate sits with the inspector as a court, but even then power is limited to investigation. The report of the inspector, which includes the facts in the case, the testimony of witnesses, and his conclusions and recommendations, after submission to the Board of Trade, is sent to the railroad concerned, and to the press, and later published in the form of a parliamentary blue book. The inspectors enjoy a life tenure, and as they are men of recognized ability and high character, their conclusions are almost invariably accepted and acted upon by railroad officials. This system of inspection has worked with unvarying success, and is probably the strongest single influence in creating that degree of immunity from accident which England enjoys.

Investigation of accidents in this country is confined to the state railroad commissions, and to but a part of these. Some of these bodies are clothed with large powers, which they exercise with vigor, and their conclusions have proved valuable, especially in insuring the maintenance of railroad structures in safe condition. But there is no uniformity in the powers of the various commissions, or in the conscientiousness with which these powers are exercised. Investigations vary all the way from rigid inspection to junketing trips once a year over the lines within the state. An examination of the personnel of the commissions in many states, and the method of their appointment, leads to the conclusion that little is to be hoped for from this kind of accident investigation.

This discussion has now passed in review the various causes of accidents and the practicable remedies. No specific cure has been offered, for none is at hand, and the results to be hoped for from such suggestions as have been made are not particularly encouraging. Yet it is possible to draw a few general conclusions from this somewhat technical study of railroad-operating practice. In the first place, the success of the Safety-Appliance Acts, which is universally admitted, justifies hearty public support of proposals to dispense still further with the human element in train operation by making the installation of block-signal systems compulsory. Experience with couplers and brakes has also proved that the absolute necessity of uniformity in signal practice and in the inspection of signal systems makes it necessary to take the problem of legislation out of the hands of the states and lodge it with the federal government. Finally, it is clear that the plea of expense must not be permitted to interfere with the enactment of such a law, for it is more than probable that the installation of signal systems has sound economic justification.

One conclusion must be evident to any one who has followed this discussion in detail, — that the fundamental weakness of American railroading from the standpoint of safety is the widespread and almost universal lack of discipline. This weakness extends all the way from the directors of a railroad whose sole interest is in the creation of speculative values on Wall Street, and whose gaze is riveted on the ticker-tape, down to the humblest employee who has become infected with the demoralization pervading the entire system. We can get no aid in the solution of this problem from a study of the railroads of other countries. We may strive to reach England’s standard of railroad safety by such means as double-tracking, extending the block system, and abolishing grade crossings, but we can hardly hope to transfer to American soil the temperament of the English railway servant, or the conditions determining the employment of British labor. The question of discipline is an American problem, to be grappled with and solved amid the difficulties and perplexities of American conditions.

But we can adopt entire the British system of accident investigation, a system which the existing situation imperatively demands.

What the country needs is a federal board of inspection, of long, if not of permanent tenure, consisting of men of such wide knowledge and of such undoubted integrity that their conclusions will be accepted without question, and their recommendations adopted by the railroads as a matter of course. The reports of such a board would be of incalculable value in our present perplexity. We should have the facts, gathered by unprejudiced and competent investigators, and no longer be obliged to rely for information upon the scraps that fall from the table of the railroad official. We should really know whether inexperienced men are being placed in responsible positions, whether employees are being persistently overworked, whether every precaution is being taken to enforce discipline. We should be able to dispel the mystery of the “personal equation.” Defects in the block system could be detected and its efficiency increased. The good old explanation of “spreading rails” would disappear forever. The mere publication of reports prepared by a board of experts would act as a powerful tonic on the whole railroad system of the country. Shiftless methods that endanger life and property cannot long persist in the light of a merciless publicity.

Finally, conclusions of such a board would provide indispensable material for such legislation as experience would show to be necessary. It would discourage wholesale law-making, and would lead to the exercise of greater restraint, and more sanity in the enactment of measures to guard the public safety. Enduring results in legislation are only to be realized when statutes are based on a broad foundation of accurate and welldigested information.

  1. Congress at its last session appropriated $50,000 to enable the Interstate Commerce Commission to test experimentally the automatic stop.