Monday, July 23, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Three

By August Hutchinson

Research laboratories contributed significantly to many improvements in railroading technology. The Pennsylvania Railroad opened the first one in 1874, followed by the Burlington (1876), the Santa Fe (1883), the Erie (1883), the B&O (1884), and others. Then, at the turn of the century, MCBA joined with Purdue University to do significant independent research. All railroads could benefit at very low costs, since suppliers furnished most of the tested materials and the university paid the researchers.

The researchers spent most of their time testing equipment to assure that goods were of acceptable quality before they were used. Chemical analysis was applied to the water in the steam boilers, the lubricants lining engine valves, the metals used to make trains and rails, and much more. Drop tests, which literally involved dropping products from tall towers, would be applied to large and small objects (e.g. wheels and couplers)

B&O Chemists are working at the railroad's Mount Clare Shops.
Railroad companies could benefit tremendously from these practices. Take the example of the Canadian Pacific: a few years after beginning to chemically analyze their wheels, they reduced wheel failures by 80%. Or, take the example of the B&O: by 1890, it were rejecting 15% of tested axles and 2% of tested wheels. All of this rejected equipment, without the B&O’s testing, would have otherwise been employed to the potential detriment of managers, laborers, passengers, freight providers, and almost everyone else involved.

These and other exercises in quality control motivated suppliers to improve their products, and they led to discoveries that made materials stronger, safer, and/or more effective. For example, chemical analysis of rails revealed that certain companies used badly refined steel containing many sulfur and carbon impurities. Since these weakened the metal, suppliers of well-refined steel received greater business; many other suppliers were motivated to bolster the quality of their steel products, and those who failed to do so struggled. It’s quite Darwinian.

Often, tests conducted in the labs of railroads, manufacturers, and independent organizations produced varying results. In these situations, many managers and researchers realized that testing methods somehow differed, and eventually discovered that seemingly minor details could make a big difference. For instance, different drop testing sites employed different platforms onto which objects were dropped. Some platforms were metallic, but others were wooden; the wooden platforms provided slightly more cushioning than the metal ones. This could mean the difference between an object’s passage or failure. Such discoveries led not only to a refinement of the testing process, but also  led railroads to demand that outside researchers provide more detailed information about their tests. Both of these developments in turn led to higher standards and better railroad materials.

But many railroads and their labs were slower to advance, and still tested haphazardly. As Frank Ward said in 1888: “of all the railroads for whom I have so far inspected, [only] one road has required physical tests to be made of its rail steel.” Adding validity to his claim, a survey conducted in 1899 revealed that even though the practice of rail testing had spread significantly, many carriers (including the B&O) blindly accepted the specifications provided by rail manufacturers in an era without effective federal standards about truth in advertising.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Four. You’ll learn about the advances made in track and ballast technology, and about how the railroads protected themselves from saboteurs and from large, unsuspecting animals.

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