Wanted: A Commission on Railroad Accidents

THE hardest and most important railway problem in the United States is that of accidents. There were 10,585 persons killed and 169,538 injured on our railways in the year ending June 30, 1912. The problem of railway discrimination is important. But unfair discrimination has been very greatly reduced in recent years. The problem of reasonable rates is important. On the whole, however, railway rates in the United States are the lowest in the world. But our railway-accident record is worse than those of most other leading countries; and while relatively to the traffic handled it. is getting better, it is not improving fast enough. Compared with the problem of accidents, the problems of rates and discrimination have become unimportant.

The main force for good or ill in this country is public opinion. Public opinion regarding any matter is a composite of the sentiment of the relatively few who are most directly concerned with it and of the relatively many who are more indirectly concerned with it. To get many great public evils abolished it is necessary to unify, enlighten, and vitalize this composite opinion. Public opinion can helpfully and effectively attack the railway-accident problem. It can demand of those directly connected with railways that they adopt needed measures, and it can cause the passage of legislation to remedy conditions which those measures cannot or do not remedy. But every day adds to the evidence that the public and the press, from which the public gets its information, know very little about the causes of accidents. The public’s increasing indignation about them is disposing it to adopt many measures; but its lack of knowledge leads to the adoption of measures which are unwise and futile.

Wisdom and humanity dictate that the first things done, or required to be done, shall be those which are adapted to stop the most fatalities and injuries. Those which will prevent relatively few should come later. This is especially true if the latter will cost a great deal of money, and thereby interfere with the subsequent raising of the funds necessary to stop larger numbers of accidents. This principle is being disregarded. For example, numerous legislatures have passed laws to increase the number of men employed in train crews; and a bill for this purpose is before Congress. The passage of the bill before Congress would increase the operating expenses of the railways of the United States $12,000,000 a year. This amount at five per cent is the annual interest on $240,000,000. For an investment of $240,000,000 block systems could be installed on practically our entire railway mileage. It is doubtful if the full-crew legislation will ever save a single life. Its promoters are the representatives of the railway employees’ brotherhoods, and it. seems a fair inference that their main object is to increase the number of railway employees. While there are few or no records of accidents caused by too small train crews, every expert knows that, in the interest of safety, block signals should be installed on all our railways. They furnish the best means of preventing collisions; and collision accidents cause many deaths and injuries each year. This is but one of many illustrations of the fact that public indignation and misinformation are being played on to secure regulation that will cause a maximum of increase in expense and a minimum of increase in safety.

Statistics are seldom interesting and are not always instructive. But when statistics covering a long period all point to the same conclusions, it is usually safe to draw those conclusions and act on them. The statistics of railway accidents compiled by the Interstate Commerce Commission since its creation clearly indicate the existence of certain conditions, and that those conditions are the main causes of railway accidents. The official reports of the investigations of specific accidents corroborate the statistics. It would seem either that railway officers and employees and the public should make the inferences that the statistics and reports suggest and act accordingly, or that the whole subject of railway accidents should be investigated de novo by some competent and impartial body representing the public, as a basis of comprehensive action. Neither of these things is being done.

Let us briefly examine the statistics and find out what they, as a whole, suggest as to causes and remedies. They are seldom studied and discussed as a whole. The classes selected for discussion often depend on what the person using them wishes to prove. When they are considered as a whole and in their proper proportions, the conditions disclosed, or indicated, are apt to cause surprise to most people.

The popular notion is that most of the fatalities and injuries are caused by plant failures. The kinds of plant failures they are attributed to are accidents to trains, such as collisions, derailments and boiler explosions. But if there had not been a single accident to a train in the United States in the year ended June 30, 1912,1 92 per cent of the persons who were killed, and 90 per cent of those who were injured, on railways would have been killed and injured none the less. Most people think that most of the fatalities and injuries occur in collisions. If there had not been a single collision in 1912, 96.5 per cent of all who were killed and 95.3 per cent of all who were injured would have suffered none the less.2

Furthermore, all of the accidents occurring to trains are not due to plant failures. The Interstate Commerce Commission says in its annual report for 1912: ‘The most disquieting and perplexing feature in the problem of accident prevention is the large proportion of train accidents caused by dereliction of duty by the employees involved. By far the greatest number of our serious train accidents are due to the failure of some responsible employee to perform an essential duty at a critical moment. The gravity of this problem is indicated by the fact that, of the 81 accidents investigated (by the Commission) up to September 1, 52, or more than 63 per cent of the whole number, were caused by mistakes on the part of employees. These 52 accidents comprise 48 of the 49 collisions investigated, and 4 of the 31 derailments.’

Even the block system does not stop these man-failure accidents. ‘Of the 48 collisions caused by errors of employees,’ the Commission adds, ‘33 occurred on trains operated under the train-order system, and 15 occurred under the block system. The most numerous failures were by trainmen and enginemen. These were disobedience of orders, disobedience of signals, failure to keep clear of superior trains, improper flagging, and failure to control speed at dangerous points.’

When a train is derailed or is struck by an engine or another train, it is technically a ‘train accident.’ When a train, or a car, or an engine, runs over a man on the track, it is an accident to the man, but not a ‘train accident.’ Let us turn from the statistics regarding ‘train accidents’ to those regarding other accidents.

Some of these are partly or mainly due to plant failures. The killing of almost 900 non-trespassers at highway grade-crossings doubtless was partly due to the fault of those killed; but it was mainly due to a defect in the railway plant. An entirely satisfactory plant would not have grade-crossings. The killing of 86 passengers and employees who came in contact with overhead and lateral structures was partly due to carelessness by those killed, partly to failure of the railways to provide wide enough clearances between engines and cars, and objects over and beside the track. The killing of 192 employees while coupling and uncoupling was partly due to defective couplers, but mainly to carelessness by employees; for over 99 per cent of all locomotives and cars, in compliance with federal law, are fitted with automatic couplers. The killing of 470 passengers, employees, and other non-trespassers, by falling from cars and engines was due partly to carelessness, partly to defects of safety appliances. In accordance with laws passed by Congress the Interstate Commerce Commission has prescribed, and the railways are now adopting, appliances for engines and cars, to remedy these defects.

The fatalities and injuries due to causes other than those mentioned are but slightly or not at all attributable to plant failures. Such are ‘industrial’ accidents at freight houses, on boats and wharves, in and around shops, and the like, occurring on railroad premises but no more connected with railway operation than similar casualties in private plants that make or repair railway equipment by contract; accidents caused by people stepping in front of moving engines and cars; accidents to trespassers, and so forth. These other accidents in 1912 included 8,075 fatalities and 120,652 injuries, or 76 per cent of the total fatalities and 71 per cent of the total injuries. Of the fatalities coming under these heads, 1,596 resulted from employees and passengers being struck or run over as a result of getting in the way of moving cars and engines. There is no improvement in plant that can stop such accidents. These fatalities included also 5,343 accidents to trespassers; and the total number of trespassers killed was 5,434. The average total number of persons killed daily was 29; and out of that number, 15 were trespassers.

This brief analysis indicates that accidents are due (1) to plant failures; (2) to combined plant failures and man failures; (3) to man failures; (4) to trespassing. Deeper analysis indicates that while these are the immediate causes, there is an underlying one out of which they all grow. This cause of the causes of accidents appears to be a spirit of carelessness or recklessness on the part of many who are directly or indirectly concerned with railway operation. It is a spirit that is not manifested in railway operation alone in this country. A striking illustration of it is that the number of people killed by automobiles in the streets of New York City in 1912 was 146; while the number of railway passengers killed in train accidents in the entire country was only 139. Doubtless the only real specific for railway accidents is to remove the underlying cause — this cause of all the immediate causes. To do that it would be necessary to revolutionize human nature in this country. That cannot be done in a day. How, then, can we most effectually deal with the immediate causes?

The public and the railway employees say that the owners and managers should put the railways in a condition which will reduce plant failures to the practicable minimum. The owners and managers reply that they gladly would do this, but that the earnings of most roads are too small. They estimate that it would cost $444,000,000 to widen the clearances between locomotives and cars and overhead and lateral objects, enough to keep careless people from being struck by these objects. They admit the desirability of abolishing grade-crossings, but say that the fact that track-elevation in Chicago alone has cost $70,000,000, and will cost a total of $150,000,000, indicates what grade-separation everywhere would cost. The managers estimate that it would require over $36,300,000 to replace all the rail, now in track, weighing less than 70 pounds, with 75-pound rail; and many times more to put all track in safe condition; and they call attention to the fact that they already, under requirements of law, are spending $55,000,000 to improve the safety appliances on their engines and cars.

It is sometimes said that, while many accidents are caused by misconduct of employees, most of the manfailure accidents are due to real mistakes. ‘It cannot be assumed,’ says the Interstate Commerce Commission, in its annual report for 1912, ‘that employees deliberately ignore disciplinary measures which they know from experience are necessary for their own safety as well as for the safety of many others who for the time being are placed in their charge. . . . To prevent railroad collisions, adequate measures must be taken, first, to reduce the chances of human error to a minimum, and second, to neutralize the effects of such error when it occurs.’ The railway managers deny that employees are as careful as the Commission’s statements imply, and assert that one of the main things needed to reduce accidents is to make the men careful, and that the main thing needed to make them careful is better discipline. The powerful railway brotherhoods, they add, render proper discipline difficult. The grievance committees defend employees who ought to be discharged; they appeal from the superintendent to the general manager and from the general manager to the president; they threaten to strike when the managements stand firm, and sometimes execute the threat.

The main physical improvement recommended by the Commission, to prevent accidents, is more block signals; the main means recommended to neutralize the effects of accidents are steel passenger-train cars. It also insists that the railways develop means for automatically stopping trains when collision is imminent. The managers reply that no automatic train-control system has proved its value under the varying and hard conditions of steam railroad service. They admit the desirability of the installation of block signals, but say that the cost in the entire country would be $260,000,000. They admit that all steel and steel-underframe passenger-train cars further safety; but they say that they are substituting them for wooden cars as fast as is reasonable, and that legislation requiring an early and complete change would cost $632,746,000. They add that, however anxious they may be to make needed physical improvements, these are being retarded by regulation that increases expenses and reduces earnings.3

Finally, they say that the statistics show that a large majority of the fatalities and injuries can be prevented only by employees and other persons taking better care of themselves. This applies to the many accidents to employees from stepping in the way of moving trains and cars, and to the many to trespassers.

It is sometimes said that trespassing could be reduced by abolishing highway crossings and fencing rights of way. Railway managers reply that accidents to trespassers should properly be charged not to the railways, but to inefficient government; because trespassers have no right to be about railway premises at all, and efficient government would keep them away. Furthermore, they say that even elevation of tracks does not stop trespassing. In Chicago, where the roads have spent so much for track-elevation, trespassing on their elevations is chronic, and the only way to stop it generally, it is contended, is for the public to pass and enforce laws prohibiting it.

Personally, after much study of railway accidents I am convinced of the need of three remedies.

I. The remedy that will reduce fatalities most is the passage and enforcement of strict laws against trespassing. This has been done in Canada, England, and on the continent of Europe, and is responsible for the most marked difference between their railway-accident statistics and ours. In only six states in this country, — New York, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, — are there laws specifically prohibiting all trespassing on railway property.

II. I am convinced that the thing needed to cause the second largest reduction in fatalities, and the largest reduction in injuries, is better discipline among employees, the word discipline being used to include proper selection, training, and, in cases of culpable misconduct, punishment. The duty of administering discipline is primarily that of the management. But it would seem that the managements must be backed by public sentiment, if not by law. In some cases the railway brotherhoods do go to extremes in defending members of their organizations from needed discipline; and the managers are apt to quail before the prospect of a strike when they fear that public sentiment will be against them. When an employee culpably commits a violation of an order or rule which might or does cause an accident, he offends against the public. In England the rules of the companies, on approval by the Board of Trade, become the law, any violation of which is a criminal offense. In effect, the same thing is true in Canada and on the continent of Europe. The Interstate Commerce Commission recommends the standardizing of operating rules by legislation, adding that ‘once agreed upon and adopted, they should be rigidly enforced.’ If the government adopts rules, should it not punish the employee who violates them, as well as the management that disregards them?

III. I believe that as a remedy for fatalities and injuries the statistics show that improvement of the physical plants ranks third in importance. That it is needed, however, is beyond question. But installing block signals, substituting steel or steel-underframe passenger cars for wooden cars, widening clearances, strengthening track, eliminating grade crossings, and introducing other improvements needed for safety alone, would literally cost billions. If automatic train-control on steam railways should be successfully developed, its installation would cost other hundreds of millions. Comparisons of the accident statistics of this country and Europe often are made that are very unfavorable to our railways. Account is not always taken in them of the fact that most of our roads necessarily have been built cheaply and that their average capitalization is only about $65,000 a mile, while that of the railways of Prussia-Hesse is $111,000, that of the railways of France over $140,000, and that of the railways of the United Kingdom about $275,000. To make all the improvements in our railways needed for safety would cost an average of from $20,000 to $30,000 a mile, and I am convinced that the roads could not raise the necessary capital, or pay a return on it for an indefinite period, unless the public should permit advances in their rates and net earnings.1

But individual opinions count for little. It is public opinion that counts. Therefore, the great need is to enlighten and crystallize public opinion. How can this best be done? Two recent developments seem to afford valuable precedents.

For some years there had been much discussion of regulation of railway securities. Many whose opinions carried weight advocated drastic action. Others whose opinions seemed entitled to equal respect opposed any action. Congress therefore created, and President Taft appointed, a commission to study and report on the subject. It was composed of able and public-spirited citizens who commanded public confidence. It was presided over by President Hadley of Yale, and included B. H. Meyer, now a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission; Walter L. Fisher, lately Secretary of the Interior; Frederick N. Judson, of St. Louis; and Frederick Strauss, of New York. After months of hearings it made a thorough, enlightening, and constructive report. It advocated legislation, but opposed radical legislation. Public opinion was crystallized in favor of an advanced but moderate policy. All the commission’s recommendations may not be adopted, but the public confidence they inspired is sure to prevent either action or nonaction greatly at variance with them.

One of our most difficult and important railway problems is that of establishing proper relations between the railways, their organized employees, and the public. The employees claim that their conditions of work are too severe and their wages too low. The managers claim that the wages paid are high enough or too high, that the power of the labor brotherhoods has become excessive, and that this power is being abused.

The public is vitally concerned. It wants the employees fairly dealt with. But the freight and passenger rates it must pay depend largely on what wages the railways must pay. The public is also deeply concerned that railway service shall not be interrupted by lockouts and strikes. There was need for a thorough investigation of the entire railway labor situation. In the spring of 1912 the relations between the roads in the territory east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio and Potomac, and their locomotive engineers, came to a crisis. A great strike was imminent. It was prevented by an agreement to submit the issues to a board of arbitration composed of one representative of the railways, one of labor, and five disinterested citizens. The railways chose Daniel Willard, President of the Baltimore & Ohio; the enginemen chose P. H. Morrissey, formerly president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen; the Chief Justice of the United States, the presiding judge of the Commerce Court, and the United States Commissioner of Labor chose as the other five arbitrators Oscar S. Straus, of New York City; Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin; Frederick N. Judson, of St. Louis; Albert Shaw, editor of the Review of Reviews; and Otto M. Eidlitz, former president of the Building Trades Association of New York.

This board did not confine itself to the controversy pending. It studied the railway labor situation as a whole. It concluded that conditions rendered grave the danger of railway strikes which would cause heavy loss and much suffering to the entire nation. It therefore made a comprehensive report, describing the situation and recommending legislation to prohibit railway strikes and lockouts until after arbitration, and to create arbitration commissions to which railway employees and managers must submit their disputes; legislation which, while dealing equitably between them, should also safeguard the rights of the general public. This remarkable document has enlightened the public regarding a most important problem. It is crystallizing public opinion on how to deal with that problem. Later developments probably will show that it marked an epoch in the history of the relations between capital, labor, and the public.

The wisest and most important step that could now be taken regarding railway accidents would be to create a similar commission to investigate and report on the whole accident problem. It may be thought that this duty should be performed by the Interstate Commerce Commission. But the Commission is burdened with many and varied duties, and a report by it would not command enough confidence in some quarters where entire confidence would be desirable. Railway managers blame railway employees for many accidents, and charge that the employees’ brotherhoods interfere with discipline. Now, the Commission, ever since its creation, has employed members of the brotherhoods — some of them discharged railway employees — as its inspectors of safety appliances and its investigators of railway accidents. Many railway officers resent this. They think that it shows bias, and that even if it does not, the reports made to the Commission are sure to be more or less unfair as between managements and employees and to tend to bias the Commission’s mind. Again, the only member of the Commission who was ever in railway service is Chairman E. E. Clark; and he was an active brotherhood man and the head of the Order of Railway Conductors. Mr. Clark is an industrious, fair, and able public official; but there seems reason to doubt if he could consider some phases of the accident problem without bias. Furthermore, the Commission is required by Congress to enforce the rebating, safety-appliance, hours of service, and other laws for the regulation of railways. In the performance of this function it is a detective and a prosecutor; and detectives and prosecutors are not notable for their impartiality. For these reasons the Commission could hardly make an investigation and report that would command the needed confidence in all quarters.

Therefore, the work should be done by some other body. Probably that body should contain some men having special knowledge acquired in railway service. It might be that Mr. J. W. Kendrick, formerly vice-president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad, and a distinguished railway expert, and Mr. P. H. Morrissey, formerly head of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, and one of the most prominent railway labor leaders in the country, could be induced to serve. I make this suggestion without having consulted either of them, and merely as a part of the outline of what the personnel should be. A clear majority of the members should be strictly representatives of the public, and men of such eminence and well-known disinterestedness and public spirit that they would command the unreserved confidence of railway managers, employees, and the public. They might be civilians such as those who served on the Hadley Railroad Securities Commission and the enginemen’s arbitration board. Better still, perhaps, they might be engineer officers of high rank in the United States army. The technical knowledge of army engineer officers would be valuable, and their position of complete detachment from politics and industry would give them a minimum of bias while inspiring a maximum of public confidence.

The investigation, report, and recommendations, to be of real value, should deal with all phases of the problem, including methods of abating the trespassing evil; what reforms should be adopted by the railway managements in the selection, training, and disciplining of employees; what legislation, if any, there should be regarding operating rules and the punishment of violations of them; what improvements should be made in the physical plants; and what should be done by the railway managements and the regulating authorities to further these improvements. A less comprehensive handling would be little better than valueless. We have had many investigations of specific accidents, and of special classes of accidents, particularly train accidents. They have advanced the solution of the problem but little, for to solve a problem it is necessary to deal with all its factors. The plan outlined would not, of course, solve the accident problem. But it would lay a broad and deep foundation for solving it.

  1. For convenience I have used only the statistics for the year ended on June 30, 1912, because they are typical of those for all recent years.
  2. See Interstate Commerce Commission Bulletin, No. 44, p. 14.
  3. The various estimates given of the cost of improvements needed for safety are based on compilations made by the Special Committee on the Relations of Railway Operation to Legislation, which is maintained by the railways.
  4. The Block Signal and Train Control Board of the Interstate Commerce Commission said in its report for 1912: ‘ It may be assumed at the outset that railroad officers and employees are as anxious to do everything in their power to promote safety as the public is to have safeguards provided. . . . If all think alike and have the same desire, why are not better safeguards provided? The general answer, for most railroads, is the expense involved. . . . There is the immensely greater volume of business to be handled; the palatial passenger service, with greatly increased speeds and consequent demands on equipment and roadbed; and the general advance in wages, with resultant higher cost of construction, maintenance, and operation. All these things have added to the expenses on the one hand, with no corresponding increase of earnings on the other.'