Monday, July 16, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Two

By August Hutchinson

The Safety Appliance Act also was inspired by and applied to couplers, another menace to trainmen. On 13 December 1877, brakeman Edward Smith, having already lost all but two of his fingers from previous coupling mishaps, got his hand mashed while coupling cars. John Restorf, on 11 October 1877, jogged in between two moving cars to uncouple them, as was common practice for men on switching duty, when he snagged his foot on a railroad tie, tripped, and was run over. Both of his lower legs were cut off, and his left arm was crushed. He died 13 days later.

Messrs. Smith and Restorf suffered from the two most common types of coupler accidents for trainmen. The link-and-pin coupler was the culprit in most cases. Men had to walk or jog between cars, and either pull a pin out of a coupler to uncouple two pieces of rolling stock, or guide the two pieces together and insert a pin into the coupler.

Most early attempts to fix these problems weren’t very successful. To give one example, almost all railroads in New York required their men to use gadgets known as coupling sticks, which would allow them to guide two pieces of rolling stock together without endangering their fingers. But while coupling, the men still needed to go between cars to drop the pin in, and while uncoupling, they still needed to pull the pin out, so they still ran the risk of being run over or damaging their hands. All the same, coupling sticks were at least a step in the right direction, even if the reason for mandating them was, as many workers insisted, “to shield employers’ pocketbooks in court.”

One ideal solution was developed very early on: the automatic coupler, the first of which (invented by Eli Janney, a former Confederate officer and dry goods dealer) was patented in 1873. To understand how it worked, take your left hand, palm toward you, and curl the tops of your fingers toward you. Then take your right hand, palm away from you, curl the tops of your fingers away from you, and hold it next to your left hand. Now push the fingers of your left hand over your right hand, and then pull so that your left and right hands are now locked together. No longer did trainmen need to run in between two gigantic cars to guide the coupler together and drop a pin in; the couplers linked themselves as the cars came together (hence the name ‘automatic’) and could be unlinked via a lever operable on the extreme left or right of a car, away from the tracks and wheels.
Patent Diagram for Eli Janney's automatic coupler.
Unfortunately, automatic couplers such as Janney’s were very slowly implemented - seventeen years after they were invented, only ~10% of all rolling stock was fitted with them. Considerable coupler research had occurred in the seventies and eighties, but it was not executed with urgency. The first research to have a real impact took place at the 1886-7 Burlington trials, arranged and hosted by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroad. Though geared toward brake testing, they led the independent and influential MCBA to promote Janney’s coupler.

The ICC also helped the automatic coupler cause as it was helping the air brake cause: by releasing its first set of national statistics in 1889, thus bringing political, public, and press attention to the sad state of coupler affairs. That year, it reported, ~300 employees had died and ~6,800 were injured due to coupling accidents. That amounts to 15% of all employee deaths and 33% of all employee injuries for that year. Pressure mounted, and by the passage of the Safety Appliance Act in 1893, ~25% of railroad equipment was fitted with automatic couplers. But, perhaps because of growing traffic, the number of coupler-related injuries had also unfortunately increased to ~11,300 by that time.

Once again, it was the freight service (FS) trains that were behind the times. In 1889, years before the Safety Appliance Act was passed, ~95% of passenger service cars were already equipped with automatic couplers; that number grew to ~98% by 1901. By contrast, in 1889, only ~6% of the FS trains had automatic couplers; that number grew to ~98% by mid-1901 thanks to the act.

But the proliferation of automatic couplers wasn’t the solution to all coupling issues; just because they were prevalent doesn’t mean they were of high quality. In 1904, the ICC reported that 20% of the nation’s rail cars had defective couplers. This is the primary reason that, even though the number of employee casualties from coupling had declined dramatically since 1893, ~250 coupler-related deaths and ~2,800 coupler-related injuries occurred in 1903, after the almost total departure of the link-and-pin system. Railroad companies, though responsible for installing defective couplers in the first place, were also responsible for fixing the problem by replacing them. By 1910, only ~1% of rail cars had defective couplers.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Three, and you’ll learn about the impact of research laboratories on railroad quality and safety.

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