Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Recent Railroad Disasters

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THE frequency and the frightful fatality of recent railroad disasters have come to be most appalling. Among the more prominent causes put forth in explanation or in extenuation is that of the overtaxed and exhausted condition of the trainmen. This excuse, while reluctantly accepted in part by the public, is little better, however, than none at all, as, so far as it is valid, it simply transfers the responsibility from the trainmen to the officers, and substitutes criminal mismanagement for criminal carelessness.

But this statement by no means meets the case.

Among some of the most sanguinary that come to my mind at this moment—the calamity of the Wabash, the Chester Bridge, the two on Long Island, and not long since at Yonkers, at Germantown, and near Dedham—with none of these had fatigue anything whatever to do. The men responsible for these calamities were comparatively or altogether fresh.

That the men forgot, or were careless, or inattentive, or neglectful, is true; but that in these and in many other cases, the men were overtaxed and exhausted is not true. Some other and more comprehensive cause of these oft-recurring calamities must be sought.

The science of railroad transportation, to whatever extent it has advanced, has been almost wholly the result of experiment rather than of theory. From first to last the theories, for the most part, have proved very wide of the actual results. Nor is this a matter of surprise when we consider what a revolution the locomotive wrought among mankind.

As the successor of the stagecoach, steam travel was inaugurated upon the general principles which that earlier mode of travel had evolved from long years of experience. The steam road in all its multitudinous appendages was cast to meet certain supposed requirements as to speed and volume of traffic. The roadbed, ties, rails, engines, and cars had all been calculated to meet a certain assumed pressure, strain, wear and tear. Such, however, was the almost immediate demand for larger facilities, that hardly had the various appliances of the road become adjusted to each other and their new conditions, before the extension and enlargement of the road in all its capacities had become imperative.

It was not difficult to construct an engine with greater steam capacity, and hence greater power and speed; but what a series of calamities followed! The roadbed, the ties, the rails, the wheels, were all disproportionate and inadequate.

Who that recalls the railroad conditions of forty years ago does not remember the constant succession of misfortunes chargeable to the single track, the imperfect bed, to broken rails and wheels, and a hundred other imperfections in machinery and the necessary appliances?

All these mishaps and catastrophes were a part of the new conditions men were seeking to master.

Not only was the whole scheme new to mankind, but the burden at once thrown upon it was utterly beyond its design or its capabilities. No one was more keenly alive to the inadequacy of these first plans to meet the public want, than were the railroad men themselves. But an enterprise involving millions of dollars in a definite, precalculated system is not like a garment that can be thrown aside and replaced by another at pleasure.

However desirable, the abandonment of existing conditions and the adoption of others must necessarily be slow in enterprises of such magnitude and expenditure.

Nevertheless, during those forty years, such was the mastery of general principles and detail in the construction of the road and the rolling stock, and such the perfect adaptation of part to part, that to-day failure—i. e., so-called accidents—pertaining to either of these particulars is rare.

During these years experience met each weakness as it became apparent, until now a first-class road runs thrice the weight at thrice the speed with almost entire immunity from casualty from these causes. The "accidents" of the earlier years have been wellnigh eliminated from our modern train.

But "accidents" yet remain no less frequent than in those days of inexperience. This undreamed-of accession of power and speed has also brought a larger range of liability, new conditions, and new perils.

In the earlier mishaps the fault was found to exist mainly in our want of knowledge of the innate strength of the materials used—a fault inseparable from our inexperience. In our later "accidents" the fault has not been found in the material nor in the structure. Quite otherwise.

In that frightful Yonkers calamity the fault was found to be in "the man." In the two Long Island wrecks, in the Dedham, the Chester Bridge, in the Wabash, the Germantown, and so on almost without variation, the fault has been in "the man," not in the road.

That is, in the development of these immense steam forces we appear to have reached a point where the brain force undertaking the guidance and control has become the fault-bearing element and the more fruitful cause of calamity. And so manifest has this preponderance become, that it calls for the most serious consideration. In general terms, the brain force in our modern rapid transit, seems incommensurate with the demands laid upon it.

A fast Atlantic steamer has ordinarily, for fair weather, three or more men on watch, and two officers on the bridge; and in thick weather often not less than ten or twelve, whose sole business it is to guard the ship against outside contingencies.

We start out an express at four times the speed in equally thick weather, under the care and direction of a single man—in a few cases, perhaps, with an assistant.

Let us note the ordinary duties of this man with hundreds of lives in his keeping, plunging into the darkness, storm, snow, and fog at a speed of sixty to ninety miles an hour.

He is supposed to stand with his hand upon the throttle, looking to scan every rod of his fast-flying track, to note every crossing, every approaching vehicle, every straying animal, to observe every signal and every switch, while there are beside him in his cab from fifty to seventy-five levers, valves, cocks, gauges, handles, and what not, which he is expected to apply instantly as the exigency may arise, as danger may spring into view, or calamity confront.

It is said that Wellington, at a critical moment of Waterloo, when a message was brought to him that a certain battalion was without ammunition, failed to respond to the call. Afterward, referring to his failure and to the disaster which resulted to the battalion, he said: "It is true; but no man can think of everything."

In the heat and stress of battle a man may be pardoned an inability to recollect, even at the cost of human life; but a system of business that, every hour of the day and night, intrusts the lives and safety of the public to the care and protection of a brain overburdened and distracted, like that of a locomotive engineer, is open to the gravest criticism.

Nor is it in the duties of the engineer only that this peril abides. The Yonkers disaster, and one of those on Long Island, were from the rear; the Wabash and the Germantown from the siding. It thus appears that the demands of the modern train are insufficiently met by the intellectual guiding force at all points—front, rear, and on the sides.

The New York World in a recent article approached this question under the title of "A Psychological Puzzle." Referring to the Wabash switchman, the article says: "What made that brakeman turn the switch and let the express train plunge into the waiting freight? The accounts all agree that Thompson was a man of experience, a trusted man, and of more than ordinary intelligence. He had frequently stopped at the same siding to let the same train go by. . . . Why did he do it? Not to wreck the train and kill the passengers. His mind wandered for a moment, he forgot his duty, and before he came to himself the mischief was done. Carelessness is hardly a complete explanation, nor is forgetfulness. . . . Does our mental machinery suddenly fail us at times?"

The continuity of the track is ordinarily broken by a like switch every few miles. An hour's ride takes the train over a dozen such breaks, any one of which misplaced means a horror like that of the Wabash. The rear guard may at any moment, from some irregularity to his train, be called upon to hasten back with the danger signal against an on-rushing second section or a close-following train. Should he stumble amid the storm, be blinded by the snow, or should the wind extinguish his light, or should he, like Thompson, fail from some unaccountable cause, a second Yonkers would follow.

Whether the explanation suggested by the World be the true one or not, one thing is very evident in the light of our modern experience, and that is, that such responsibilities as now attach to the trainman of a modern express, whether it be engineman, switchman, or brakeman, ought not to be longer intrusted to the protection of any single mind, however faithful, however conscientious. Were the human mind and body perfect as a machine, faultless in its workings, and with no liability to irregularity, failure, or lapse, we might be so justified. But, not to speak of the body, no mental organization is perfect. Frailty is a part of man's inheritance. Against that frailty, against that fatal moment, we have now no protection whatever. We are abandoned by our sole guardian, by the only divinity that stands over us, and we are left to a horrible death or to the tortures of hell. It is idle to say these men are careless, that they are regardless of duty. They are as faithful and as trustworthy as would be any other men put in their places—as faithful as our human nature permits.

It simply appears that we have been attempting to force from our human organization a degree of exactitude in the operations of the mind which the brain refuses to yield. And in view of the sanguinary record of the few past years, directly at the hands of the men in charge, we may well question the wisdom of a longer trial. It no longer remains an uncertainty where the weakness of our present system lies, where the danger abides. That the brain power of a modern express is disproportionate to the requirements, admits no further question. Safety in land travel, no less than in ocean travel, demands a duplication of the officers in charge. Whether it be engineman, rear guard, brakeman, switchman, or whoever undertakes to stand between the passenger and the multiplied dangers of the road, there should be a first and a second officer, that, in any and every emergency, whether through carelessness, forgetfulness, or lapse of conscious thought, the duties of that post should be sustained.

Does any one for a moment suppose that, if there had been a second officer whose business it was to inspect that Wabash switch and see and certify that it was properly set, or that if the Yonkers brakeman had been followed by a second signal light fifty yards in the rear, either of those catastrophes would have occurred, or any of these recent rear-end and siding calamities?

When, ordinarily, human life is taken, the whole machinery of the criminal law is exercised to bring the offender to justice. But here a score of persons are put to death, or to a torture the like of which exists not elsewhere in any portion of our globe, either civilized or savage torn, mangled, crushed, scalded, burned and it is held excusable as an "unavoidable accident."

To say that these things are a necessary part of the progress of mankind is a libel on civilization. To declare them unavoidable accidents is, for the most part, to assert that which is not true to attempt a justification through what we know to be false. Accidents they are not. They are simply criminal maladministration.

When one's life is sacrificed, or when one is maimed for the remainder of his miserable years, it is of little import to the sufferer or to his family whether it be the result of criminal intent or of criminal neglect. The shade of difference is not so very clear between life needlessly taken and life purposely taken.

Since the foregoing was written, the death-angel has pursued his appalling railway harvest with unabated fury, seventy-seven deaths and one hundred and eighty-four mangled in thirty days, being the record for the United States, so far as heard.

From the general facts as given in the public prints, these calamities, like those above referred to, and like the most of those now occurring, appear to be attributable to "the men" and not to "the road." There have also appeared in the public press some explanatory or apologetic statements from officers of several roads, some of which are worthy of attention as expressing the views of the officials into whose care the public intrusts its welfare; none of which, however, give it any assurance of any greater degree of safety.

An officer of the New York, Lake Erie, and Western is reported as saying, "I can not explain the unusual number of accidents just now"; adding, however, "the train-dispatcher's duties have become very much more exacting." This means, if it is intended to mean anything, that the fault lies in the train-dispatcher, not in the road or machinery.

One of the superintendents of the New York Central says: "Railroad accidents are like epidemics; they can no more be foretold or arrested (prevented?).... When a train is on a doubletracked road, the danger is reduced, I may say, one hundred per cent."

The first statement of this superintendent, if spoken hastily, without thought, may be excused as a careless utterance; but as a deliberate opinion that this railroad slaughter is not preventable, and that there is nothing left for the public but to submit to its continuance, it is simply atrocious and worthy of a savage of the Congo.

Such a statement from a railroad official, into whose hands we must perforce place our lives and those of our wives and children, is ample ground for impeachment. It makes one's blood boil.

It is to put up a sign over every station entrance on the New York Central: "Slaughter permitted here. Accidents can not be prevented." Yet, in the next breath, this superintendent adds "Double-tracking the road reduces the accidents one hundred per cent" (sic).

It seems, then, that one hundred per cent of the accidents were not only preventable, but that on the New York Central they had been so prevented. When the road was the source of danger, the weakness was met and overcome by re-enforcing the road. Now that the weakness is found to reside in the men, the slaughter of to-day makes an imperative demand for an augmentation of the forces, at the present moment, so inadequately and disastrously attempting control.