Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/On the rail - Part 1

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Part 2


Steam, sir, is a wonderful invention.”

We have all heard the remark once or twice before now; and whenever we hear of a paper on railroads, I fancy, we all suppose that this is to be the moral of the discourse. Let me say at starting that I am not going to sing the praises of Watt and Stephenson. I confess to my own knowledge on the subject of machinery being of the vaguest kind, and, beyond a traditional belief, derived from the lessons of my childhood, that the principle of the steam-engine is the same as that of a tea-kettle on the point of boiling over, I know nothing of the mechanism of “the greatest discovery of modern times.” Nor do I purpose improving the reader’s mind by an account of how many tons of coal are consumed per diem, how many passengers are conveyed over every mile, or how many parcels are delivered daily. I leave statistical demonstrations, which establish everything without proving anything, to those whose taste lies in that way. All I wish to do is to grumble about our railway accommodation. It has been my fortune to travel a great deal over railroads in many parts of the world. In fact, a large portion of my life must have been passed upon the rail; and in my capacity of an old traveller, I have arrived at a certain number of conclusions which may be worth recording.

As to railway accidents, I must express my conviction that any alarm concerning them interferes very little with the comfort of travelling by rail. You are always told that if you happen to have your head broken or your ribs knocked into your lungs by a collision, it is no consolation to learn that only one passenger in I don’t know how many millions ever gets injured. No doubt this is true, but before the accident happens this consolation is an immense comfort and solace to the traveller. Every minute of our lives the house we dwell in may fall down; or a madman we meet in the streets may shoot us dead, under an impression that he is Brutus and we are Julius Cæsar. But the chance of such a casualty is so infinitesimally small, that its possibility does not disturb our peace of mind. So it is with railway travelling. With all the caution and prudence in the world, accidents will occur on the best regulated lines. If we were to travel twenty miles an hour instead of fifty, we should doubtless have fewer accidents; and if we reduced that moderate rate by half, we should have fewer still. But personally, the only result would be that one’s chance of being killed or maimed would be some infinitesimal fraction less than it is at present. We cannot eliminate the possibility of accident, and as long as that remains an element of my journey, I care very little whether the odds in my favour are 20,000,000 or 21,000,000 to one. I remember the captain of one of the grand Cunard steamers remarking to me, that when you were in a fog off the Banks, the wisest thing was to go full speed and trust in Providence.

“If you are to hit an iceberg,” as he said, “it matters uncommonly little whether you are going twelve or eleven knots an hour; and the harder you go the sooner you will get out of the ice.”

This has always been my feeling about railroads. Accidents are all in the day’s work; if they are to come they must come, and the faster you run the shorter the time you are exposed to the danger.

Thus, for my own part, the contingency of a collision or a break-down is not one of the grievances that I brood over in my breast, as inflicted on me by the directors and managers of our railroads. My complaints against them are based upon evils, dangers, and discomforts that might be remedied by a small amount of liberality and forethought. First and foremost among my wrongs is the obstinacy with which they deprive me, speaking of myself as a representative traveller, of any means of communication with the conductors of the train. I do not believe that I am a nervous man in the ordinary sense of the word, but I own frankly, that I grow extremely uncomfortable whenever I find myself shut up in a compartment with one unknown companion. Some years ago, on a hot summer afternoon, I happened to be travelling along the Great Western line. I was very tired, and fell asleep almost as soon as I entered the carriage. When I woke up, after a half-hour’s nap, I found that the only other occupant of the compartment was a tall, powerful man, with an immense beard—a thing less common then than it is now—and an enormous oak stick, on which he was leaning his head. At that moment we were passing in sight of Windsor Castle. My unknown friend turned suddenly round to me, and, without giving me time to speak, uttered the following remarkable sentiment: “You see that castle, sir; that house, by rights, belongs to me. I am the lawful King of England.” I shall never forget the cold shudder which passed over me as I heard this remark. The train, I knew, did not stop for another thirty miles. The stranger, apart from his stick, could have beat me into a mummy with ease; and, in spite of what I had read in books, I felt considerable doubt as to whether he, like the traditional madman, would be awed by a stern and unflinching gaze. So I uttered the singularly imbecile remark, that I was glad to hear it, and proffered the deposed monarch a cigar with servile humility. He accepted it graciously, and gave me in return a copy of a printed appeal, which he had drawn up to the Queen, offering to forego his hereditary rights—not being an ambitious man—if she would give him the title and estates of the Duchy of Cornwall. I found that my friend claimed his descent direct from William the Conqueror. So I informed him, with a base disregard of truth, that he was the exact image of a portrait of William Rufus, in the possession of a friend of mine. He was pleased to take the remark in good part, and then proceeded to dilate on the pleasure of meeting agreeable companions on the journey. Not long ago, he told me, he had been travelling with a gentleman who was sulky, and would not talk; so he waited till this unhappy man looked out of the window, and then dropped a lighted vesuvian on the cushion. The silent stranger sat down, and, as his majesty remarked with a grim smile, “was not able to sit still during the rest of the journey.” I fancied the story was meant as a lesson, and exerted forthwith what conversational powers I possessed: with what success it is not for me to say. This I know—that the lord of Windsor became confidential and communicative, and told me a variety of stories about his adventures with Santa Anna, the King of Dahomey, the Emperor Napoleon, and other illustrious personages, which, under other circumstances, would have been really amusing for their Munchausen improbability. To the present day, I am uncertain whether my companion was not more knave than fool. The question was one it would have required longer time to decide than I chose to allow. The moment the train stopped—and oh! how long it was!—I jumped out and left the king alone in his glory.

The incident seems humorous enough now, but I know, to me at the time it seemed anything but humorous. My acquaintance, instead of being, at the worst, a harmless and somewhat entertaining lunatic, might have been a ferocious maniac. It is always with an unpleasing recollection of this adventure that I find myself shut up alone with a stranger. A thousand things might happen, besides the extreme case of his happening to lunge at you with a pocket-knife, as the victim of competitive examination did the other day at Bletchley. Supposing, I often think to myself, he or she was to die, how singularly unpleasant my position would be! I have seen a man in an American car going off into one fit after another for an hour together. Fancy what a terrible sixty minutes that would have been if you had happened to be all alone with him. I was once put into a carriage on an English line, together with two drunken sailors returning to Liverpool from a week’s carouse in London. A schoolgirl, returning home for the holidays, was, unfortunately, in the same carriage with us; and for an hour this poor child had to listen perforce to the ribald songs and oaths of the two ruffians, who were just in that stage of abusive drunkenness in which they fluctuated between offensive rudeness and still more offensive familiarity. In a case like this there was absolutely nothing to be done. If it had come to a tussle, it was infinitely more probable that I should have been thrown out of the window, than that I should have succeeded in throwing the sailors out, and therefore all I could do was to keep on good terms with the gallant British tars till we reached the first stopping-place. Now, any inconvenience of this kind would be remedied if our companies would consent to the simple expedient of establishing some means of communication between the passengers and the guards. Mechanically, there is absolutely no difficulty about such an arrangement. In the United States the contrivance employed is of the simplest. A cord runs from car to car, fastened by loops to the roofs. The guard at the end of the train can stop the engine at once by jerking the cord a certain number of times, and the passengers can summon the guard at any moment by pulling it. Of course I shall be told that such a plan may work very well in America, but that it would never do in England. Now, I admit that the conditions of locomotion are somewhat different in the two countries. The guard—or, for that matter, any person—in a Yankee train can walk as easily from one end of the cars to the other as if he was in his own drawing-room. Moreover, as each car contains from twenty to sixty people, according to the fulness of the train, no mischievous or nervous passenger can stop the engine without sufficient cause. If he did so, his fellow-travellers would be there to report him. There is really no reason, however, why, with certain modifications, a similar plan should not be introduced here. If the footboard alongside our carriages were made a little broader, and projected a foot or so beyond the carriage, and if a stout rail were fixed to the side of each compartment, a guard might walk with perfect safety from carriage to carriage, no matter what the speed of the train might be. It is done in Belgium, and might be done equally well in England. I should not propose to give the power of stopping the train to the passengers. A rope running outside the carriages might communicate between the guard and drivers; one running inside between the guard and the passengers. If I am told that the public are so foolish, or so unscrupulous, that people would always be ringing for the conductor, I say that I have heard the same story often with regard to other matters, and have always found it false. As a rule, I believe English people have as much good sense as Frenchmen or Germans or Italians. If it was found in practice that the guard was constantly summoned unnecessarily, a fine might be imposed on any passenger who pulled the rope without reasonable cause; but doubtless such a precaution would not be required. At any rate, nothing can be worse than the present system. It is monstrous that, as has happened before now, a carriage should be on fire without the guard having any power of stopping the train, or that a madman should be stabbing his companions in a carriage without his victims having any means of obtaining aid.

Next to the safety of my person, I value most dearly the safety of my luggage; and on this point my grievances are manifold. I say unhesitatingly, that our luggage arrangements are the very worst in the world. I am not addicted to elaborate contrivances in the way of trunks that hold everything, from a shower-bath to a looking-glass, or of bags with a hundred pockets. My boxes are very much like other people’s boxes; and I should find it extremely difficult, unless I had my packages before my eyes, to tell of any distinctive mark by which my trunk differs from that of Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones. Now, it not unfrequently happens to me to be turned out late at night, and only half awake, on the platform of one of our great London termini. I never know which end of the train my luggage-van happens to be placed at; and, by the time I have made my way to the right place, I find a confused mass of trunks, bags, and boxes lying on the pavement, surrounded by a crowd of grasping, pushing passengers. Which is my luggage, or where it is, is more than I can say for my life at the moment; and meanwhile, trunk after trunk is being carried off in triumph by some traveller more resolute or unscrupulous than myself. What is to hinder him from seizing on my luggage, or me from appropriating his, I could never discover. If we were found out, we could each of us say we had made a mistake; and I do not see how anybody could contradict the assertion. How much luggage is absolutely lost I cannot tell. Whether the amount is great or small seems to me beyond the question. When a professor of the Berkeley theory, that there is no such thing as matter, was asked why he did not jump out of the window and prove thereby his belief in his own doctrines, he replied, that though—there being no such a thing as a leg or arm—he could not possibly break his bones, yet that he should imagine he had broken them, and the imagination of pain was as painful as any reality could be. Just in the same way I assert that the idea you are going to lose your baggage is just as painful as the fact of having lost it, and therefore, even if our railroads do generally, by some mysterious providence, deliver their luggage to the rightful owners, my objection to the system remains the same.

Whenever I have commented on this subject, and have praised up the foreign system of registering luggage in preference, I am invariably informed that English people would never consent to the delay incident to carrying it out. In a qualified sense, I grant the truth of this objection. If continental travellers carried as much luggage as we do at home, and if they insisted on never reaching the station till two minutes before the train starts, it would be very difficult to weigh the luggage, as they do in France, to enter it in a book, to write its weight, number, destination, and charge for transport, on a debilitated slip of paper, and to hand it to the impatient owner in time for him to catch the train. The arrangement is part and parcel of the system which erects barriers in front of the ticket boxes, recommends you to come half an hour before the time stated in the bills, keeps you locked up in the waiting-rooms, and refuses to allow any one to claim his luggage till all the trunks and bags and boxes are arranged systematically on the long counters—a system with many merits of its own, but one not adapted exactly to British prejudices. But, as far as luggage is concerned, America is the paradise of the railway traveller. No conceivable reason can be assigned why the American plan should not be introduced here. As soon as you arrive at the station, the porter carries your luggage to the freight agent, as the gentleman who looks after the luggage is called in the States. This gentleman has in his hands a number of straps of leather, with a medal at one end and a slit at the other. He asks your destination, passes a strap through the handle of your trunk, fastens it by putting the medal through the slit, hands you another medal the exact counterpart of that attached to your luggage, and then turns to the next traveller. It is all done in a second, and you have nothing to do except to walk on to the cars and take your place, with the medal in your pocket. You may travel from Boston to St. Paul’s, Minnesota, in the Far West, without troubling yourself about your trunks. They will get there as certainly and as quickly as you can yourself. About half an hour before you arrive at your destination a very genteel young man passes through the cars, and asks you what hotel you stop at; you give him your address and your medals, and receive a receipt from him in return. When you get to the station you have no bother about your luggage; you walk or ride, as you like best, to your hotel, and, as soon almost as you are arrived there, you find the luggage standing in the hall. Of course, till we contrive some means by which the guard can communicate with the passengers, we cannot adopt this system in its entirety. But why we do not have the strap-and-medal plan introduced, instead of our cumbrous and unsatisfactory mode of pasting a label on every article of luggage—and why a luggage agent does not establish himself with a van at all our main stations,—are questions I cannot solve. When I can find out why we are not allowed to have street-railroads and steam-ferries, I may possibly be able to form some opinion on the matter.

E. D.