Monday, August 13, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Six

By August Hutchinson

Passenger cars and the people inside were, like bridges, prone to fire damage thanks to coal-fired stoves. It was also perceived at the time that the open-flame candles and oil lights were huge problems (it turns out that while they did sometimes cause or fuel fires, they weren’t as dangerous as the stoves because the impact of many crashes put out their flames). Newspapers were relentless in criticizing these heating and lighting systems in the cars, as exemplified by a scathing 1886 New York Times editorial about a contemporary crash: “the heat was soon so intense that no one could stand within 100 feet of the cars, and so fierce that in less than ten minutes the miserable occupants had been burned beyond recognition...If there had been no coal stove there would have been no fire, and if there had been no fire many lives that were lost could have been saved. There is nothing new about this accident. In many other railroad collisions and wrecks the coal stove has had its victims, and in nearly all cases of the kind the number of its victims has exceeded the number of those who were fatally injured or killed by the shock...The coal stove and the kerosene lamp should be excluded by law from railroad passenger cars...The passenger car of to-day is a tinder box. Highly seasoned wood, with oil and varnish, make it as [flammable] as a bundle of kindlings soaked in benzine...Public opinion demands safety. It is the companies that demand the dangerous lamps and stoves because they are cheaper than other safe appliances...The Directors should for a time turn their attention from the stock market to this subject.”

This Massachusetts Crash had a death-toll of thirty-two. It would have been
lower without the resulting fire, blamed by officials on the kerosene lamps.
It’s true that the railroads had not been doing much about the problem. Some small-scale experimentation took place, and some railroads, after drop-testing stoves, pushed manufacturers to strengthen them so they wouldn’t burst open in a collision and spit their ultra-hot coals into a flammable car and onto the people inside. But it wasn’t until the 1876 disaster near Ashtabula river (out of 159 passengers and crew, 64 were injured and 92 were killed in the crash and ensuing inferno) that the public outcry grew shrill and the railroads finally started addressing the problem.

Most critics clamored for steam heating to replace the coal-fired stoves, but the railroad companies were hesitant. Replacing the systems would be costly. Plus, they were faced with a slew of technical questions that needed to be answered before they could install the steam systems: How would the system deal with condensation? Would the steam come from the engine, which could reduce power significantly, or from an independent source that would be installed? What would it add to the fuel bill? Was it effective enough in very cold weather?

Most of these questions were eventually answered through research by railroad companies, manufacturers, and independent groups, and the results were distributed widely. Railroads were also helped by enthusiastic inventors - most well-publicized railroad fires were followed by spikes in patent grants for heating systems. In some states in the late eighties/early nineties, like Massachusetts and Maryland, the common stove was to be banned and after a certain point, all cars were to be steam heated.
“The Modern Altar Of Sacrifice - The Devouring Car Stove” reads the caption
of this cartoon from the era.
Even though the vast majority of cars were coal heated at the time of the 1876 Ashtabula crash, fifteen years later,  ~29% of them were equipped with steam heaters and about ~27% had water heaters. So less than half were equipped with coal stoves by that time. And most of the cars that were still heated by stoves were on lightly-travelled railroad lines. Most of the new technology, by contrast, was employed on the highly frequented lines, meaning that alternate heating systems warmed many more passenger miles than coal did. Pintsch gas lighting was adopted on many lines as well. It was safer than previous lighting systems and advertised as such, but it still very capable of adding fuel to a fire, like it did in the 1892 Thirsk crash in England.

Other safety advances came to passenger cars in the latter 1800s. The B&O would brag in 1898 about how its Pintsch-lit Royal Blue cars, which were much more metallic than the older cars and thus much less flammable, “are not only vestibuled [which allowed safe transit between rail cars], but...are further protected by Pullman’s Anti-Telescoping device, an invention that effectually prevents the crushing of the cars in case of collision.” 
Anti-Telescoping Devices aimed to prevent cars from being crushed together like this.
Fires aside, collisions and derailments were greatest causes of passenger injury and death. From 1890 through 1900, even with the proliferation of safer passenger cars, collisions annually, on average, killed ~69 and injured ~775 passengers. In that same decade, derailments annually, on average, killed ~31 and injured ~672 passengers.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Seven, and you’ll learn about the dangerous lives led by trainmen, fraught with negligence, confusion, abuse, and of course explosions.

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1 comment:

hemcoined said...

There is nothing new about this accident. In many other railroad collisions and wrecks the coal stove has had its victims.
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