Saturday, April 5, 2014

Blood Between the Tracks

  People love the railroads for many reasons.

We are awed by the sheer scale of the machinery, enthralled by the variety of color, inspired to create it in miniature. The trains’ whistles soothe us to sleep; the thunder of their passing reminds us that somewhere beyond the chaos of our daily lives, there is order.

The sights and sounds of the railroads touch on something deep in the human soul. I would wager that for most of us, an interest in trains is about more than just a fascination with the machinery and the purpose that it serves. We hear a whistle, close our eyes, and briefly, imagine that we are on the way to somewhere else. The destination in this imaginary journey is unimportant, only the fact that we envision ourselves to be moving.

Without a clear map of where we’re going, the railroads tend to carry us all towards the same fantasy of the past. Things were simpler in the past, we like to imagine, and pictures and videos of a panting steam locomotive and its pillar of smoke feel like a direct link to a bygone era. This is the real, though difficult to articulate, allure of the railroads. The gap between the tracks is a safe space to pretend that, just for a moment, we have left behind the cares of the modern world.

As with any romantic rendering of the past, though, the railroads are colored in rosy shades. What we mistake as simplicity, as freedom to conduct operations without mechanical complexity or the oversight of the authorities, was in fact the learning curve as one of the first mechanized industries stumbled into maturity. Riding the railroads carried a significant amount of risk, in the industry’s early days, and the corps of employees and track laborers had an on-the-job death and industry rate that would appall modern workers and regulators. Beyond the occasional mention of a self-sacrificing engineer in dramatic folk ballads, the blood between the tracks has almost entirely faded from popular memory.

Construction Worker Deaths
The first railroad line opened in was the Stockton and Darlington Railway; the first to carry passengers was the Liverpool and Manchester. The opening of both companies were heavily publicized and well-attended by the general public curious to catch a glimpse of the snuffling prototypical locomotives.

Some of those present no doubt conceptualized the potential benefits that transport by rail offered over maritime or animal-drawn goods, though few of them could have imagined how different the world would look two or three decades after mechanical transport arrived. The opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester, however, was darkened when a former cabinet member named William Huskisson stepped in front of an oncoming train and shortly thereafter died of injuries to his legs.

There were two lessons to be taken away from the tragedy. First, a certain measure of danger was inherent to the railroad industry and its passengers. It was an undeniable fact, inherent to the business of moving around large pieces of machinery and cargo, which could be mitigated by careful design of the equipment, but never completely removed. The second was that when up close and personal, the railroad equipment did not distinguish between rich and poor. All the members of the human race were the same before the machinery--frail and insubstantial. The businessman with deep pockets might be able to purchase more comfortable accommodations for the duration of their travels, but the money would not protect him in the event of an accident.

Building the railroads and then keeping them running demanded an endless supply of manual labor. The conductors and men who ran the engines were the tip of a vast labor force. The tracks had to be built and then maintained, at first with pure muscle and without any sort of maintenence-of-way equipment to ease their efforts. The upstart railroad companies, not yet turning a profit, naturally wanted it at the lowest cost possible.

Practically speaking, it was the poorer classes who took what work would come to them that found themselves in the closest proximity to the railroad machinery, and bore the brunt of the risk. Many railroads were built before protections for workers were written into law and unions organized to bargain on behalf of employees. The track-builders worked extensive hours, without few, if any protections for their safety. Their work areas offered scanty protection against the often harsh conditions through which the railroads had been routed, and communicable disease that swept through the workers’ temporary encampments.

Many of the workers who built the transcontinental routes in North America were immigrants from other countries, particularly China and Ireland. Not only were these men typically paid less--often so little that they barely broke even after deducting their work expenses--the foremen routinely assigned them to the most dangerous jobs, such as working with explosives or clearing rock tunnels. The families were not compensated and often not even notified in the event that a worker was killed on the job. The earliest railroad tracks not only had a cost in dollars or pounds, but in human blood.


Passenger Deaths

Today, train passengers are protected by numerous design features that reduce the impact and damage of a crash . The first passenger cars were nothing more than horse-drawn carriages mounted on flatcars, then wooden boxes mounted on wheels. They were seldom constructed with any sort of internal reinforcing to keep the car intact in the event of a collision. One particular type of incident known as telescoping accident, in which the force of the sudden stop was sufficient to smash one carriage through the frame of the one in front, generally resulted in a particularly high mortality rate.

Wooden carriages were also prone to catching on fire, if the wooden heating-stoves within were overturned during the crash, or the embers from the engine spilled and the flames spread backwards. Some of these fires commanded horrific casualty numbers: On both sides of the Atlantic, railroad companies sometimes locked carriage doors in order to prevent people from jumping on and off of the trains in between stations by locking the carriage doors.

Rail service in the United Kingdom progressed through its first few decades without any serious accidents. Trains there traveled comparatively short routes, and were usually limited to slow speeds. There were no serious incidents in the first half of the 19th century to temper the frenzy of railroad building and investment. The serious accidents began to come in the 1860‘s and 1870‘s, as the rail line became more heavily trafficked and congested.

The story was different in the United States, though, where from the opening of the Baltimore and Ohio, trains had to cross much greater expanses in between their destinations. Not only did this encourage the owners and operators of the first American trains to run faster than the often hastily constructed tracks were built to handle, the railroad crews could not realistically keep the tracks in good condition and swept of debris. Minor derailments were common enough that in many cases, the passengers were called to assist in re-railing trains that had come off of the hastily constructed tracks.

At the worst, though, travel by rail was downright dangerous. The vast distances of the American landscape made it difficult for railroad builders to construct double-tracked routes, as became common in Britain and the rest of Europe, and also made signaling between multiple trains on the same track. Some of the worst accidents occurred when signaling mishaps sent two trains barreling head-on towards each other. These dreaded accidents were known as cornfield meets, and caused wreckage and destruction on a level that had never been seen prior to the invention of mechanized transportation.

Railroad Worker Deaths

Though accidents involving high passenger casualty rates were justifiably mourned and scrutinized in the media of the time, the individuals who worked for the railroads suffered a much greater and more consistent casualty rate. Whereas passenger might only ride the trains one time or on infrequent occasions, the railroad staff members were exposed day in, day out to the hazards of the industry.

Dramatic crashes of the sort memorialized in folk songs like The Ballad of Casey Jones and The Wreck of the Old 97 were far from the only hazards chanced by railroad workers in their everyday duties. They faced dismemberment or crushing injuries from equipment moving down the line, burns and scalding from the steam and blazing fires of the locomotives.

Steampunks never seem to get this dirty.
The workers, especially the crews in the cab, also suffered constant exposure to coal dust, soot and exhaust from the locomotives. Though medical science in the age of steam was had advanced far enough to maintain records of how many workers were made ill due to these substances, but many of them contain known carcinogens and must have taken a high toll on the workforces’ health.

The brakemen and the yard workers were by far placed at the highest risk. In order to accomplish their duties, these workers would stand in between two railcars, often in motion, and use a pole or even their bare hands to insert or remove the pin that held the couplers together. The smallest slip of the feet might result in a yard worker falling under the wheels of the train, or being crushed in between the rolling stock. Failing to remove or drop a coupling pin could crush or sever a finger; indeed, injuries to the hand were so common that missing digits became an indicator of how long one had progressed in his railroading career.

In the latter half of the 19th century, inventions appeared to ameliorate both of the hazards of coupling and of applying the brakes. The Westinghouse Air Brake made it possible to slow down an entire train from the engine, and would automatically turn on in the event that a train broke apart while in motion. The Janney Automatic Coupler, which has remained almost unchanged up until the present day, could join train cars together just with kinetic force and could be undone with a long staff.

The United Kingdom passed the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 to require air brakes within two months of an accident in which part of a train with insufficient hand brakes rolled down a hill and claimed 340 casualties. On the other side of the Atlantic, most American railroad companies were unwilling to shell out the expense for air brakes and automatic couplers until Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act in 1893. The effect of these legislation was immediate and tangible: By 1903, accidents in the United States related to coupling had dropped to 4%, compared to almost 40% prior to the Appliance Act.

To this day, railroading remains a relatively dangerous industry, but hard-earned experience has reduced much of the risk that permeated the early days. Perhaps it's a conscious choice that we
 overlook these dangers when we look backwards down the rails. We want to know just enough about our hero engineers to know that we should idolize them. For me, though, a closer look at the blood between the tracks makes me appreciate that most industries are (at least superficially) concerned with worker safety, and thankful that death and injury are no longer considered an acceptable collateral cost in the transportation sector.