Monday, July 9, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment One

By August Hutchinson

American railroads of the nineteenth century were not known for being safe. Grand disasters occurred with frightening regularity, and news of them was splashed upon the front pages of publications across the country. Not-so-grand disasters, on the other hand, struck the workers of the railroads much more regularly. In the latter portion of the nineteenth century, many very important safety advancements were made to mitigate these disasters, thanks to the combined efforts of manufacturers, independent organizations, the government, the press, the public, railroad laborers, and (to an extent that is not often given a fair amount of recognition) the railroads themselves. The stories behind these advancements combine to form a tale of very imperfect progress - the type of progress most common in our world.

The Republic Train Crash, and others like it, could have been prevented by the newest, best air brakes.

On 3 January 1877, B&O freight train No. 26 broke down near Republic, Ohio. Ten minutes later, an passenger-carrying Express Train came rumbling down the tracks and slammed into its front end. Thirteen people died. Evidence suggests that the engineman of the express had applied the brakes ~1000 feet away from B&O No. 26 while traveling at ~43 mph. If his train had been equipped with automatic Westinghouse air brakes, it probably would have escaped collision, but it had much less powerful ones that had been obsolete for years.

The situation would have been even more hopeless a few years prior, when all trains were stopped primarily by brakeman-operated hand brakes on the tops of individual cars. Thankfully, in 1868, George Westinghouse invented the straight air brake, which enabled the engineer to control all car brakes with a lever in the locomotive cab. Since it could stop trains more quickly because it could be applied to the entirety of the train faster than a mechanical brake could be applied to a single car, the trains could travel faster and more safely.

But there were limitations to straight air brakes. On long trains, the brakes would apply to the front cars immediately, but would take a short while to apply to the rearmost cars. So if the engineer applied them too aggressively, he could jolt the train in a damaging way. And if the brake had clogged valves or bent rigging or jammed pipes, it wouldn’t work properly. Even more significantly, if an air-carrying hose burst, all air would escape and no pressure could be built up. To fix this problem, Westinghouse introduced the automatic brake in 1873. Now a fall in brake-pipe pressure would apply the brakes, not release them, so a train with a broken hose would safely slow to a stop. And, as a bonus, the automatic air brakes applied more quickly than the straight air brakes did.

Even though they still had the other limitations of the straight air brakes, one might imagine that railroad managers would have been eager to apply them to their trains by the time of the 1877 crash. And many railroads did - at least on their passenger lines, where they could competitively market the greater speeds that air brakes permitted. The Express Train that rammed into No. 26, and many other trains, were equipped with straight air brakes. They would have had the faster-braking automatics, but the B&O managers probably decided not to upgrade the train’s braking system a second time. After all, straight air brakes already allowed them to market greater speeds and thus garner more passengers and thus make more money. Expending similar amounts to install the newest model, which was fairly similar to what they already had, may have seemed unattractive.

Freight lines present a different story. Most of them wouldn’t have generated greater profits or a better public image running faster and safer trains. While passengers going from Baltimore to New York might care about saving a half hour, a mining company shipping copper from Montana to the east coast wouldn’t. And because freight cars far outnumbered passenger cars (by 1890, they were 34 times as numerous on a national level) it would have been much more expensive and time consuming to modify them. Early on, railroad companies also faced opposition to air brakes from locomotive engineers, who were wary of the unfamiliar new technology’s functionality. But many would change their tune, and from 1874 onward the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers would lobby for legislation mandating air brakes. But this made little difference. By 1890, though ~96% of passenger cars were equipped with air brakes, only ~9% of freight cars had them. Clearly, the economics of the situation largely controlled the progress being made.

At least until politicians were rallied to action after reading the Interstate Commerce Commission’s (ICC’s) first national fatality statistics. They revealed that, that year, ~2,000 employees were injured and ~500 were killed from falling off of trains (most of these casualties are assumed to be brakemen operating hand brakes on the tops of cars). That’s 10% of all employee injuries and 25% of all employee deaths that year. Even some of the most economically conservative politicians, like Henry Cabot Lodge, were shocked into action, and by 1893 Congress passed the first legislation regulating railroad safety, the Safety Appliance Act.
Quoth the original act, “from and after the 1st day of January, 1898, it shall be unlawful for any common carrier engaged in interstate commerce by railroad to use on its line any locomotive engine not equipped with...appliances for operating the train-brake [air brake] system...or to run any train...that has not a sufficient number of cars in it so equipped with...train brakes that the engineer on the locomotive drawing such train can control its speed without requiring brakemen to use the common hand brakes for that purpose.” The railroads vigorously lobbied to delay the date that the act went into effect, and successfully moved it forward to 1 August 1900.

Since most Passenger Service (PS) trains were already well equipped (the year the legislation was passed, ~98% of PS locomotives and ~97% of PS cars already had the brakes) not much progress was recorded. Much more significant was the impact on the longer and more numerous freight service (FS) trains. Only ~76% of FS locomotives had the brakes in 1893, but ~98% had them in 1901. Similarly, a measly ~19% of FS cars had them in 1893; ~73% had them in 1901.

Luckily, by the 1900s, most engineers had been trained to operate these air brakes, but this had not been the case in earlier decades. This was dangerous, because controlling the brakes required a deft touch; if the engineer applied them too quickly, he could buckle the train, and if he released them too quickly, he could cause it to break in two at an overstressed coupler. And if he had made a number of service stops using his air brake, he might discover in the unfortunate seconds of an emergency that his air reserves had been mostly depleted.

By 1882, only two major railroads, the Erie and the New York Central, had air brake instruction cars with which to train enginemen. Finally, in 1889, Westinghouse constructed one, which it sent to various railroads to provide free instruction on brake use to engineers; many major railroads followed his lead and made their own in the 1890s. The Master Car Builders Association (MCBA) also developed a widely circulated code of rules for air brake use in 1891, while the Locomotive Engineering journal started publishing a regular section on air brakes, and labor journals like Locomotive Firemen’s and Enginemen’s Magazine wrote extensively about air brake maintenance and operation.

Air brake instruction cars, like this, were often constructed out of (or in the style of) passenger cars.
But even though almost all trains had air brakes by the 1900s and almost all engineers knew how to use them, they weren’t all used. Instead, some trains would still stop via hand brakes, which had not been unequipped when the air brakes were installed. Early in the decade, more regulatory rules were applied, mandating that 75% of every train’s freight cars have air brakes and that all trains utilize all their equipped air brakes. Yet afterward, in 1907, the ICC investigated and discovered that ‘hand brakes are sometimes used’ on the Northern Pacific, that on the Southern Pacific on some grades ‘hand brakes are used on all trains,’ and that the B&O, among other eastern lines, still operated some trains wholly or largely with hand brakes. It wouldn’t be until the popular ‘Safety First’ movement of the 1910s that the use of hand brakes would finally be phased out.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Two and learn about advancements in coupler technology.

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1 comment:

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