Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/April 1895/The Successor of the Railway

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WITHIN the few years remaining to the nineteenth century, if not indeed already, will certainly pass away the human being who can remember a date when there were no railways. A railway then will be, if it is not already, as much part of a natural landscape as a mountain or a river, since no one can then recall a time at which railways as well as rivers did not run.

Our nineteenth century has been the railway age. Within its bounds the railway has been entirely conceived, invented, utilized, and perfected. But will the century which has been the birth and genesis of the railway witness also its exodus and its death? Perhaps not; and yet—perhaps. It has been anticipated and foreseen that electricity was to be the successor of steam, and experimental electric locomotives have already been operated with more or less satisfactory results. But the question appears at this moment to be, not whether the electric locomotive will supersede the steam locomotive, but whether locomotives themselves are not to be dispensed with, and tossed, together with drawings, models, plans, specifications, and estimates for a substitution of power, upon the scrap heap, while the substitution shall be, not of the motive power, but of the motor.

It looks, indeed, as if the next century, whatever it may have in the way of aërial flight in store for us, will have no difficulty, if it desires the honor, of being christened "the trolley age." For it is to this new traction system that the railway companies are already looking with that apprehension with which an heirless landed proprietor regards his hostile next of kin. Loaded down with their vast burden of fixed charges and costly maintenance, crippled by all sorts of parasites, legal, illegal, and mixed, there seems to be nothing for them to do but to wait patiently to be superseded.

For many years the railway companies had come to philosophize helplessly at the prospective diminution of suburban profits from the horse or dummy-operated tramway, and had missed the out-of-town patron who had begun to turn his back upon comfortable sittings and smokers, sumptuous saloons, luxurious upholstery, facilities for his traveling whist or chess, heat, water, and conveniences galore. They had without a murmur seen all these pale in attraction to the man of business, who needed not to await time tables or succumb to belated or missed trains, when the buzzing little trolley hummed along its inexpensive wires every five minutes, so long as it afforded him a board bench or a strap to hang on by. But when this unexpected trolley began to go farther and stretch its transportation powers to longer distances, the poor handicapped railways were led to look at their books and—if metaphors may be mixed—to button up their pockets and hint of receivers instead of dividends. And just at present they may be praying for time to turn around before a transcontinental trolley is upon them!

The trolley indeed has, in less space of time than that required to launch any other known improvement, practically captured the cheap transportation field. This newcomer, indeed, seems equipped with every opportunity that the railways have been coveting for fifty years, and to be getting for the asking everything for which the railways have to pay the heaviest. Its economies began at its very birth. In its construction it has no use for high-salaried engineering and locating parties; for woodsmen, excavators, dumpers, agents of rights of way, and for the long catalogue of machinery for surveying and making a railway line. All these become as superfluous and as clumsy as the Old Man of the Sea on Sindbad's back; for, while your principal assistants are putting on their rubber boots, your trolley built in a night, like Aladdin's palace—is earning dividends, oblivious of summits or watersheds or grades, loops or bridges, trusses or cantilevers. It is only an item of the situation that, as fast as charters can be mobilized or capital adjusted or plants converted, the dummies are side-tracked, horses led to auction, while every species of tramway spins its overhead wires and becomes trolleyized into remunerative investments. We sometimes smile at the non-perspiring Philadelphian pace; but here are in evidence, from the calm City of Brotherly Love, figures of a month's operation of a single line where the trolley has just replaced the horse, to wit: Four hundred and fifty horses that were formerly used on the road consumed in a month ninety-two and a half tons of cut hay, about eight thousand pounds of feed, and two tons of straw. This, with shoeing, cost the company about four thousand five hundred dollars. Offsetting this, the coal consumed in one month's working cost five hundred and eighty-five dollars, a clear saving by the trolley of three thousand nine hundred and fifteen dollars. On an average, eighty men were employed around the stables and in the car sheds for looking after these four hundred and fifty horses. For these the company substitutes two or three electrical operatives, and saves about five thousand dollars a month in expenses, and anticipates an increase besides of twenty-five per cent on receipts by the increase of business, by the saving of time and the doubling of train schedules.[1]

Against such startling economies as these economists would ordinarily place the usual offsets of more highly skilled and better-paid labor required to handle the more subtile and complicated motive. Such a rule should apparently best operate in a case when an invisible power is substituted for one, where ethereal energy so literally takes the place of brute force as when electricity supersedes a horse. In every other situs the rule would obtain. When we put a criminal to death by hanging, any boor could haul at or cut a rope, but when we electrocuted we were obliged to get a higher-priced aid—a rather more accomplished Jack Ketch. But not so the trolley. Its machinery was so purely and elementarily automatic—so in a nutshell and within the control of the faintest pressure—that the material out of which drivers and conductors were made was worked over in a day into electric motormen, who, instead of a wilder found a far more tractable and manageable horse—one that went without goad, reins, or word of command; one that needed not to be put in or out or changed for shorter or longer routes. Furthermore, the new steed not only guided but regulated himself, thus dispensing with a switchman; and a horse that not only hauls, but obligingly lights and heats the cars as well. Switchmen are dispensed with by the simplest of expedients at the busiest junctions; the simple placing of an insulated rail in a track, and of disconnecting a current supplied by the car passing over it, being found to throw and replace a switch with absolutely infallible accuracy. And, again, this docile horse will not only do its own work, but anybody else's; for it has been found that where two trolley lines cross, and an accident to one withdraws its power, the power used by the other will leap over into the unoccupied wires of the disabled road and operate them both. Against such figures as these the railways will not attempt to compete, but will struggle on, meeting their fixed charges when they can, and striving to keep down their daily deficits by reorganization committees, and ciphering on the backs of old envelopes instead of writing pads![2]

But, summary as the above statements appear, these are only the secondary and mechanical effects of this insidious little humming bee—the trolley. The heavier and costlier revolution lies behind its operation and even behind its construction. The legal status of the trolley is that of a street railway. To construct the railway (and it may yet become convenient to adopt the English word "tramway," and apply hereafter arbitrarily the two, making the word Railway signify the great lines operated by steam, while the word Tramway signifies all lines operated by other traction systems), first of all, that slow-moving branch of the common law which we call "eminent domain" must be invoked with all its paraphernalia; and, of all large bodies, this power of the State, this "eminent domain," moves far the slowest. The jealousy with which it is guarded by legislatures, the reluctance with which it is authorized, the ten thousand and one commissions, boards, and councils which watch with sleepless eyes its control and its administration by the devoted railway company, are as harassing as they are beyond escape. A paternal Interstate Commerce Commission pre-empts the railway situation and pours out three or four octavo volumes a year of rules and regulations. Then the boards of railway commissioners of forty sovereign States take a hand apiece and issue each as many more pandects, edicts, decisions, restrictions, and findings again! Next the boards of aldermen of cities intervene with their ordinances and committees of investigation; and, when there are no boards of aldermen, the county supervisors, "boards of chosen freeholders," town committees, and what not gather around; and no authority, however brief or minute, but has its word in railway operation which, like Mr. Haggard's She, "must be obeyed!" Not only must all these be maintained sooner or later by taxes on the earnings of the railway, with liberal subsidies paid on the nail, but each and all of these are to be supported and placated with "passes"; courtesied to and consulted at every step; salaried, subsidized, and placated, too—for the sole purpose of making laws, rules, to restrict and never to benefit: to curtail but never to enlarge the earning powers of the long-suffering railway. For who ever heard of a law, rule, edict, or ordinance in behalf of a railway company—to bless and not to ban? And even courts, which construe a railway to be a quasi-public corporation, are most vigorous in denying it any public right (except, perhaps, the right to be bled and mulcted by everybody). But not so and such is the primal legal career of the blithe little trolley! Not only does it harness an invisible horse who works for no board and no salary, but the greater part of all this accumulated espionage and control is escaped. The "eminent domain" which it envoys comes to it through the minor powers of annoyance and interference. It takes its franchises by consent or by ordinance of the lesser municipal corporations above enumerated—the aldermen, the supervisor, the adjoining proprietors; who, lesser in place, are also lesser in appetite and cormorant capabilities. It escapes all but the local "heeler" and "striker." It needs no private funds or private pass-books; no discretionary accounts, except for the smaller appetites. Then, too, when the percentage of accident occurs, the losses are smaller and the damages more minute. The million-dollar disaster and the bankrupting cataclysm are impossibilities to them. Whether the trolley will always escape, as it appears at present to have escaped, the writer for the public press, who at every accident knows just what should have been done to avoid it, just wherein the corporation was criminal or criminally negligent, parsimonious, greedy of gain as estimating income beyond human life or limb, and so on, remains for demonstration. But for the present the trolley's strength, like a woman's, is in her weakness. She sings along her delicate wires, overcoming every obstacle, legal, natural, mechanical, temporal, and practical, dodging every expense, and, best of all, gathers in the ready nickels of everybody and his wife, while her laborious sister, the railway, must pose and turn and make rebates and special rates and ransack the catalogue of inducements if haply she may capture the more infrequent quarters and halves and dollars. With all these, it would seem to be at least common fairness on the part of the cadet of the transportation family to let her elder sister remain monopolist of long-distance traveling and freight transportation which makes her to live. But no! This ambitious young lady has already for long been flirting with freight problems, and has actually projected, incorporated, and capitalized lines ("systems" she probably has already learned to call them) between great centers like New York, Baltimore, and Washington, the carrying of mails and doubtless of our high-priced legislators (which latter will demand the vestibule, the buffet, and parlor and slumber cars, with all that these imply).

The truth is that the trolley is the coming parallel of the railway as to everything in the catalogue. Not even the protests of a nation could keep her off the sacred soil of Gettysburg. She goes where she will. She has even—if the newspapers are veracious—been "held up" in true railway style. Indeed, I foresee nothing that the trolley can not do and nothing that she will not attempt.

With her ambition, however, will come certain disabilities. When she crosses State lines and becomes of interstate dignity, she must not expect immunity from that terrible pigeonholer of freight schedules at Washington, our old mother antic the Interstate Commerce Commission, and that terrible "long and short haul" bugaboo which has already wrecked one of our most majestic American railway systems[3] for the benefit of its alien parallel, and which has precipitated three other vast plants into the miseries of receiverships! Will she who has come so swiftly into potent plutocracy, who pays dividends and fills pockets of all concerned, fall at last, as most men and women fall, by her own ambition and insatiate pride of power? Perhaps she can climb over the Interstate Commerce Commission and State boards of railway Solons above enumerated as deftly as she surmounts grades and laughs at incorporation and locating expenses! Let us hope, for her sake, that she does so. But possibly she can not expect, after dissolving the street railway, the narrow-gauge railway, the elevated railway, and all the other tramway devices except her own, to go scot-free of congresses and of State legislatures that sit nine months in every year to make new laws for this law-prolific United States.

It seems hard indeed to believe that the trolley, with all its easy dodging of expenses, can do much more for shippers than the railway has accomplished. In spite of tributes demanded, the American railway has reduced freights again to where they stood before the Interstate Commerce Commission sent them up, so that our railways now carry for an average of one dollar and twenty-two cents a ton, as against an average of two dollars and two cents for the rest of the world.[4]

The above are a few considerations which lie on the surface of the present enormous development of an invention which had hardly been born at all, but it had leaped like Minerva, adult and armored, from the alleged front of Jove. It may almost be said that it came in obedience to a reluctant summons which was only uttered after almost every other conceivable form of rapid transit had been tried, retried, rejected, and tried over again! In the city of New York, for example (to take the most crowded spot on two continents, where business urgencies of every conceivable character are cramped between waterways upon a narrow island), almost all the varieties of tramway transportation played at leapfrog with each other for years before the trolley came! The history is a curious one, and will bear repeating. But the most curious thing about it is, after all, the long and slow mental processes by which New York capitalists—after sinking hundreds of millions of dollars in building railways across trackless forests and frozen mountains and over unpopulated prairies—arrived at the proposition that the place to build a railway was where the people to ride on it lived! right at home in their own packed and overcrowded city!

Surely the history of cheap interstreet transportation in New York has been a veritable whirligig. The archaic hackney coach, then the lumbering old Knickerbocker stages, the driver of each a true Tony Veller, and then the tardy appearance of a street-car line or two on the extreme avenues east and west, as if the old impetus which settled the city along its water fronts must first be consulted in land passenger transportation: and then, as horse-car lines began to appear nearer the spinal center of the city, an effort for a choice of passengers. As who does not remember when the old red Third Avenue cars bore the titles of those departed localities—Yorkville and Harlem (as forgotten now as Greenwich or Chelsea or Strawberry Hill); or, when one could read on certain of the yellow sides of the lumbering Sixth Avenue cars, "Colored people allowed to ride in this car"; and how Broadway, the best and cream of all thoroughfares for traffic lines, was left for a generation to "stages" of lighter models and better lines than the old Knickerbockers, but still as clumsy and lumbering as they could well be made; and how, when the "Gilbert" elevated road ran one day, carrying all who came to demonstrate its safety and speed, New-Yorkers woke up next morning to find these familiar old hulks a thing of the past! (We wise ones know how many of them are still waiting to carry us precariously from some local station to some modern hamlet in the Jersey foothills, perhaps, but we never mention it!)

It is rather a remarkable fact that the very first elevated railway ever proposed to be built in the city of New York (in 1867 or 1868) was intended to be operated by the same contrivance as, thirty years later, was to be adopted by the costliest street surface railway plant in the world! This first tramway, as everybody remembers the Greenwich Street, or one-legged road, was built on pillars shaped like a letter Y, the rails being on the top of the two arms, while between them, over sunken wheels, traveled a continuous cable operated by steam power generated in stations built in pits dug under the street corners at considerable intervals along the line. These plants were failures, and after a few passenger loads were taken off the cars in ladders, the proprietors gave it up and sold the road for old iron to the highest bidder. This old one-legged road stood where it was, however, the purchasers either defaulting or allowing their purchase to remain unmoved. It was the later success of the "Gilbert" elevated railway which stimulated another company to acquire ultimately this old one-legged road and rebuild it after the Gilbert pattern, thus bringing it into the same system as it now remains. Meanwhile, upon the completion of the Gilbert elevated railway, a panic seized the street railway companies. They did not disappear in a night as the stages did, but they one and all began building the small "bobtail" cars—now happily, in New York city at least, illegal—which ran without a conductor, the passenger on entering being exhorted by signs at every turn to put his money in a box, first asking the driver to supply him with change up to two dollars, if necessary, in an envelope, while Providence took care of the horses. The Sixth Avenue line went further and constructed a couple of enormous two-story cars, which it ran up and down its Sixth Avenue line, to claim the air above as well as the earth beneath, and so to make the Gilbert elevated railway and its constructors trespassers. The present writer remembers well the ridicule this move excited, and how a daily illustrated newspaper (the only daily which in those days dared to print a picture) published a picture of one of these huge arks with the second story lettered in capitals, "Law offices of ——, —— & ——!" (being the then firm of attorneys which represented the Sixth Avenue Railway in its fight with the elevated road, and was supposed to have advised the futile demonstration). The laugh was still louder at the Sixth Avenue surface line, however, when it developed that the "Gilbert" elevated, from Carmine Street to Central Park, called for a track elevation on Sixth Avenue which actually cleared by a few feet the highest point of the "double decker" or two-story cars which they had built to assert their title a œelo ad orcum! (a right which, while undoubtedly inhering in the owner of a fee, may perhaps be questionable as accompanying a street-car franchise, especially in a city where the people and not the city own the streets)! Well, the elevated railways remained. Not only did they not decrease the revenues of the surface roads, but the surface roads were obliged to build more cars! Human beings are queer freight! And it was about an equation of the long-distance passenger who rode to the Battery, or the passenger on the lesser routes who in a day or two grew tired of climbing stairways and took the surface roads in preference! The marvelous growth of the city did the rest No doubt the Sixth Avenue surface road wished that it had the million dollars it had spent in fighting the elevated railway back in its pocket. And now, not only are there scores of surface roads in New York city which feel no inconvenience from the elevated railroads, but there is actually another stage line while trolley lines are being projected without number to parallel the surface roads, the elevated roads are projecting extensions and there is at least one subway railway which is reaching out for capital. But what would be a subway except another conduit along which the trolley should string its local wires?

Nor will this adventurer, before which everything succumbs. rest here. Prior to its advent, wise men were predicting the disappearance of the waterways, since, however economical, they might not be made economical of that costliest of all commodities—of "time"! Just as the inland canal was about to die of superannuation, the trolley has come to its relief. To apply to the canal a circuited instead of a simple overhead wire is a trifling matter, and along it the canal-boat pole ends will yet trundle, until the lazy barges will perhaps rival in bustle the trolley car on land. It may, I think, be confidently expected that, as one resultant of the supersedure of the invisible agency of electricity applied to transportation, considerable and important changes in the law of employed and employer and of negligence will almost immediately become necessary and will attract the attention of the higher courts. Just as the introduction of steam caused important modifications of the rigid and often cruel rules that the employee accepted the risk of his employment, while the employer was quit of responsibility for the negligence (as to each other) of employees; by the corollary that employers must act in touch with scientific improvement, and provide the best and safest implement of service to date: so the utilization of electricity will doubtless add the further qualification that employers must exercise due care in the selection of employees, familiar as nearly as possible with the laws of this new, constant, and invisible force. And it is equally probable that there will be considerable modulation in the assessment of what is or what is not contributory negligence, inasmuch as the peril of casualty by electric operation is and must be for a long time to come peril from an unseen source. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the old legal doctrine of overruling necessity or unavoidable accident ("act of God," as the old lawyers called it), the benefit of which of late years has been refused absolutely to the railway companies. In actions against railway companies for the last quarter of a century it has been permitted to the immediate beneficiaries of an enterprise of a quasi public nature to amerce a corporation merely because, through an inevitable accident, a few persons were killed, when many millions were carried with safety, speed, and comfort, thus imposing upon innocent corporations burdensome restrictions and conditions which hamper the exercise of their independent judgment and sound discretion in matters which virtually affect the public welfare as well as industrial and commercial progress. And it certainly is to the credit of these corporations that such procedure has not induced them to lower rather than to advance either their charges or their efforts in behalf of absolute safety. Whether casual operation of some electric principle or corollary as yet undiscovered—the change in charging power of a plant by reason of some atmospheric condition, some rise or fall of the barometer or of the thermometer— will be held to be gross negligence, to be responded for in damages on the part of a common carrier who operates his plant by electricity, remains to be seen. With all its advantages and economies even the trolley can not hope to escape all the penalties of success.

To sum it all up, there has suddenly and silently burst upon us an enormous economic agent, and one which, by cheapening the facilities not only of capitalists and manufacturers, but of the least and poorest of consumers, is actually and practically solving those social and agrarian problems which within a few years had threatened serious upheaval in the body politic. With the trolley competing in the field against the railway (selected by the communist as the solid and material symbol of arbitrary power which he should burn and dilapidate and destroy, to assert his popular rights), who shall say that a relief has not come; who shall say but that the railway, with diminished dividends and a divided patronage indeed, may have received from an unexpected quarter immunity from the peril-destroying forces and the hostility of the masses, and at last enjoy its meager surplus of profits over fixed charges, pay roll and maintenance disbursements, in something like peace! Meanwhile the people have been passed from the tender mercies of the larger to those of the smaller capitalists—from the reign of King Log, as it were, to the reign of King Stork. Whether a time will come when our paternal Government will be urged to seize the trolleys and license every one who would operate his own conveyances upon them, remains to be seen. Possibly to the rail way-haters the advent of the trolley has come both as a revelation and an extinguisher! At any rate it has brought them the cheap transportation for which they worried, without the expense of building their own railway coaches, and so a revelation in solving their difficulties with unexpected rapidity. But has it also silenced them? They can not demand that Government seize the railways without seizing the tramways. But have they been emancipated, or only had their masters changed? Who shall guess whether the twentieth-century trolley company will not be as remorseless a tyrant as the poor superseded railway company was alleged to have been in its days of dominant usefulness and prosperity?

From the circumstances attending the discovery of argon, the Revue Scientifique draws the lesson that notwithstanding the precision of science, and m spite of all the brilliant discoveries that have been made, there are very s,mp c facts of which we know nothing, and which we may live by the side of for a long time, blind to them, because we have not learned to see them.
  1. Of collateral economies, it is not improbable, for example, that insurance companies, chartered to handle electric risks alone, will make their appearance, nor will they find themselves without an exceedingly profitable investment area.
  2. A general order to this effect was sent out from the president's office of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad a few months since.
  3. This railway, as it happens, was chartered not by any State, but by the United States, and surely the nation has a right to wreck its own railway by its own laws if it sees fit.
  4. The actual figures are to-day in Europe: Germany, $1.22; Austria, $2.10; Belgium, $1.54; Denmark, $2.76; France, $2.14; Italy, $2.40; Luxemburg, $1.92; Norway, $3; Holland, $1.52; Roumania, $2.64; Russia, $2.32; Finland, $1.98; Switzerland, $3.36.