Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Final Installment

By August Hutchinson

If an employee sued a railroad to address an injury of his, he rarely got what he was looking for. As history Professor Walter Licht writes, “in the early years, the courts ruled in favor of the railroads in practically all employee liability suits. Judges generally applied the common law principle of implied contract, [which] held that an employee engaging to serve a master accepted all conditions of such service, including all the ordinary risks.” Some state governments did hold companies responsible for the accidents of their employees (e.g. Georgia as early as 1855), but that’s about as far as the concept of employer liability had gone in everyday 19th century legal life.

This doesn’t mean that no relief was available - it just came from the railroads on a completely voluntary basis. Even before medical associations rose, companies would often fund the medical care of injured employees and keep them fully or partially on the payroll, or would give them a flat grant. If a man died, railroads would often fund burial expenses and give some money to the widowed family. While a number of the managers certainly had charitable impulses triggered by the unfortunate loss of a fellow human being, a number of others saw providing medical care as a way of boosting loyalty and the company’s public image. And most railroad companies, whether acting altruistically or not, would take the opportunity to make aid contingent on waiving the right to sue them.

If a railroad’s money managers weren’t feeling particularly benevolent, or a railroad refused to provide compensation (like the New Haven & Hartford almost always did), the last place a worker could turn was his labor group. These began forming medical aid program in the sixties, like the Locomotive Engineers’ Mutual Life Insurance Association, established in 1867 to provide assistance both to disabled members and to dead members’ families. Generally speaking, trainmen also collected donations for disabled or deceased comrades.

Companies took the first steps toward their own systematic medical aid in the sixties. Early on, the Central Pacific created the first railroad hospital association. All employees paid about fifty cents per month, and the CP would cover the medical costs of any non-Chinese employee suffering from almost anything other than a venereal disease or a pre-existing condition. In the same decade, railroads like the Chicago & North Western contracted with local physicians to care for accident victims.

Then came the B&O with another innovation in the railroading world: a mutual benefit plan. Employees would pay a premium contingent on his income and his job’s risk level, and receive a daily payout when injured or sick, the amount of which was based on the same criteria. If he died, the family would receive a lump sum of money. In addition, the B&O contracted hospitals in major cities, and though it wouldn’t pay for an employee’s board costs, it would pay for all his medical care. The only catch: anyone who sued over an injury claim automatically lost all benefits.

This Advertisement from The Journal of the National
Association of Railway Surgeons serves as a reminder
of the sorts of things that railroad surgeons carried with
them. Anotheradvertisement promoted Listerine as
an anti-septic usable “by injection or spray in all the
natural cavities of the body” since, it claimed, “there is no
possibility of poisonous effect through the absorption
of Listerine.”
With the rise of railroad medical organizations came the rise of railroad medical practitioners. The National Association of Railway Surgeons (NARS) would meet for the first time in 1888. Over a quarter of railway surgeons were members by 1895. By 1914, ~14,000 physicians (~10% of the nation’s doctors) were contracted by railroad medical organizations.

With the rise of railroad medical practitioners came the rise of railroad medical practice. One railroad doctor of the era complained that “these operations out in the woods or on the back porch of some filthy house are sometimes criminal.” So, to improve on-site or near-site treatment, railway surgeons developed emergency medical packs to be carried on all trains. They also established important (albeit slightly primitive) screening tests for employees to ensure that they had the basic faculties necessary to execute their jobs. Most importantly, they used a ticking pocket watch to test the ability to hear, and a Snellen chart (the one with the big E at the top in most doctor’s offices) to test the ability to see. Railroads even gave west-coast America its first antiseptic operating room, which cut major surgery fatality rates from 30-40% to 6-7%. And when public health advocates cried for better sanitation in passenger cars, the Pennsylvania, in the eighties, began using a disinfectant, created by its chemist. Then, in 1899 it established a department of bacteriological chemistry to refine the disinfectants and to examine the cars’ drinking water. Such practices spread; by 1914, ~66% of all railroads performed sanitary inspections.

Clearly, the story of railroad safety is a story of imperfect progress. The Safety Appliance Act and subsequent legislation dramatically reduced injuries and deaths caused by coupling, but it didn’t guard against defective couplers. And some railroads still managed to break the law anyway. Bridges and ballast and boilers and rails and heating systems and the research process improved, but without celerity. In spite of hiring practices, a portion of railroaders always had erred and a portion always will err, with or without intent to do so. For the longest time, trainmen had to rely purely on corporate benevolence or expensive private insurance to fund the repair of their oft-acquired wounds. Then, finally, the railroads established their own systematized coverage plans and fueled the creation of a community of doctors especially capable of treating injured trainmen. Of course, even by 1910, railroads still weren’t paragons of safety - if they were, the ‘Safety First’ movement would not have begun that year, or been known for the very significant impact that it had. But it’s important to recognize the accomplishment of unprecedented improvement, and all its imperfections; it’s also important to recognize the agents of that improvement, and all of their imperfections as well.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Seven

By August Hutchinson

Trainmen led dangerous lives. From 1890 through 1900, collisions annually, on average, killed ~232 and injured ~1,334 employees. In that same decade, derailments annually, on average, killed ~162 and injured ~845 employees. And, as explained, they suffered tremendously from coupling and braking incidences. And, as Mark Aldrich writes, “accidents routinely occurred in the machine and repair shops and the roundhouses. Exploding boilers, crude tools, unreliable machines, primitive forges, scattered pieces of metal, and the very bustle of activity...took their toll. Shop men received serious burns and bruises and were in constant danger of losing limbs.”

Railroaders routinely engaged in other dangerous activities on the track. For example, employees would have to perform flying switches, which usually involved jumping off a car, detaching some of the cars while the whole train was still in motion, waiting for the portion still attached to the engine to speed up, and then making a railroad switch to change the direction of the detached cars. Obviously, people executing this task were running all sorts of risks, especially in the link-and-pin coupler days. Station Agent H.G. Grover of the Norwich & Worcester learned this the hard way on 10 July 1872 when he made an effort, slipped, and was run over by the detached car. Another dangerous practice: while a locomotive travelled at full speed, a fireman had to walk out on a running board (a very thin walkway stretching from one end of the boiler to the other) and then lubricate valves located at the very front of the engine. Then he would have to walk back to the cab and do the same thing on the opposite side of the boiler. This practice existed until the 1880s, when a mechanical lubrication device operable from the cab was devised.

Speaking of boilers, trainmen working on locomotives were threatened by boiler explosions. Like most railroad problems, these had a long history, stretching back to the South Carolina Railroad in 1831 and the B&O in 1834. Because boilers could be especially precarious in the early days, some passenger-hauling lines would place a car or two full of sand bags between the locomotive and the customers. Though this irritated the customers who wanted to keep a close eye on the men driving the train, it had lifesaving potential. Unfortunately, men on the locomotive received virtually no protection, and sometimes died brutally.After one boiler explosion in 1839, a reporter wrote, probably without exaggeration, that “the chief engineer was blown to pieces. His legs went into Union Park, his arms on to a pile of lumber on the other side of the avenue, and his head was split into two parts. His abdomen was also burst, and his intestines scattered over the road.” As railroad technology improved with time, boilers became more reliable, but they were far from perfect. According to the Railroad Gazette (which is much more likely than the ICC to underestimate the national count of a certain sort of accident), an average of fifteen boiler explosions occurred annually between 1873 and 1886.
This Locomotive's Boiler blew up, illustrating just how powerful such an explosion could be.
Even though these appear to have been less frequent than collisions or derailments, railroads still wanted to fix the problem. In the 1870s, they began introducing steel to boiler shells, as well as other parts of their engines, such as fireboxes and flues. But, as mentioned earlier, the steel refinery process was limited, and impurities significantly weakened the metal. It wouldn’t be until chemical analysis of steel became more common and the refinery process became more advanced that the railroads truly benefited. More immediately successful were railroad advancements in lubrication. Switching from animal- to petroleum-based oils reduced the chances of failure for small but crucial parts (e.g. crank pins). Railroads also set water quality standards and their labs began testing water for purity, because they learned that boiler scale would clog injectors and hold in heat. This damaged the engine and caused the boiler metal to overheat, weaken and potentially explode.

The government, a tad slow to deal with the problem this time, finally passed the Boiler Inspection Act of 1910. As one writer summarized it ten years later, “this act provides that it is unlawful for any common carrier...subject to this act, to use any locomotive moving interstate or foreign traffic unless the boiler of such locomotive and appurtenances thereof are in proper condition and safe to operate...All boilers shall be inspected from time to time [by] a department of boiler inspection.”
Exhaust Issues: Because locomotive boilers were placed in front of the cab, exhaust
could enter the cab and, in rare cases, suffocate someone inside. So some locomotive
manufacturers started putting the cab in front of the boiler to eliminate the risk.
Long working hours were even more harmful to trainmen. Though complete national statistics from the early days aren’t available, the B&O reported in 1854 that “for two months [April and May] the entire equipment of the Road was in constant use; extra trips without number were made by the engines, and the men in charge as enginemen and conductors were for weeks deprived of needful rest.” In that same decade, on the B&O, even clerks were expected to work twelve hour shifts, and shop workers ten or eleven hours, five to six days per week. John Work Garrett, President of the railroad from 1858-84, added that freight trainmen would often work sixteen to twenty hour shifts. This issue was hardly unique to the B&O - various railroad trade journals during the 1870s reported that train crews were regularly on duty for fifteen or more hours at a time.

Labor unions had fought for shorter work days for years. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed an 1884 resolution insisting that within two years’ time, “8 hours shall constitute a legal day’s work.” In May 1886, after little progress was made, hundreds of thousands of workers protested in the street. Similar efforts had been and would be made, but the railroad managers were extremely resistant, even though worker drowsiness harmed their companies. It wouldn’t be until 1907 that Congress passed the Hours of Service law. Among other things, this forbid working for more than sixteen consecutive hours or more than sixteen hours in a twenty-four hour period, and required a minimum of ten hours of rest for someone having worked sixteen consecutive hours. Then, in 1916, Congress finally passed the Adamson Act, granting laborers the prized concession that they’d sought for so long. It declared that “eight hours deemed a day’s work...of all employees who are now or may hereafter be employed by any common carrier by railroad, except [independent] railroads not exceeding one hundred miles in length, electric street roads, and electric interurban railroads.”

Railroad employees, drowsy or not, also put themselves and one another into danger through mistakes and gross negligence. Even though the B&O’s 1866 rulebook, a representative sample from the era, states that “disobedience of orders, negligence or incompetency, will be sufficient causes for dismissal,” a noticeable number of engineers blatantly disregarded station orders. And even though the same book says that “all persons [were] required to exercise the greatest care and watchfulness to prevent injury to persons and property,” drinking and driving wasn’t an unknown practice among engineers. The frequency of such infringements led Matthias Forney to accurately conclude that the proliferation of discipline on the railroads “would be almost like a revolution.”

Railroads would intensify the frequency of errors on their lines by (often inadvertently) hiring inexperienced people, though they made sure to absolve themselves of most responsibility by saying, as the B&O’s 1866 rulebook does, that “each liable to be held legally responsible for injury to persons or property caused by his negligence.” Take the example of John Lynes. In 1907, he held back a California Fast Mail Train at a Kansas station to allow another train to pass. Then a dispatcher asked him to hold it back for a second train. He accepted the order and began to copy it down; as he did so, he saw the Fast Mail Train pulling out. So, without stopping his writing, he reached out and operated the signal control board with divided attention. The train didn’t stop, so he ran out to the platform and realized with a sinking heart that he didn’t put up the right signal. After he waved around his lantern to no avail, he realized that a crash was inevitable and fled. About thirty-one people died. It was learned later that the day of the accident was Lunes’ fourth day ever as an operator, even though he claimed to have six years of operating experience. He also claimed to be 23 when he was 18.

Railroad officials were also responsible for a slew of signaling-related accidents. In 1889, the U.S. Commissioner of Labor surveyed sixty of the nation’s largest railroads. He concluded that eight months was the duration of employment for the average engineman, seven for the average conductor and flagman, five for the average fireman and telegraph operator, and ~four for the average brakeman. This phenomenon was caused largely by stringent firing policies and the frequent hiring of men as temporary hands. So railroad men moved frequently from one railroad to the next, but most railroads had very different signaling systems. The U.S. Commissioner of Railroads reported in 1881 that, among whistle signals, only one had the same meaning on most railroads, while others had up to forty different meanings across railroads. And according to a New York Railroad Commission report, while the color denoting caution on most roads was red, on others it was green, and on others it was blue and white. So it would be very difficult for people like enginemen to keep all their signals in order. After this caused much confusion and plenty of accidents, the American Railway Association finally developed the 1884 Standard Code of Train Rules, which the Railroad Gazette urged carriers to adopt. By 1889, ninety carriers controlling about ~42% of the nation’s rail (~66,000 miles) did so.

Come back next Monday for the final installment of A Dangerous Ride. You’ll learn about the ways in which trainmen were compensated for injuries and about the development of the railroads’ unique branch of medicine.

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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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Monday, August 6, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Five

By August Hutchinson

Railroad companies certainly didn’t want to dissuade paying passengers from taking journeys on the rails. Non-paying passengers, like hobos, were a different story. Not only were they stealing transportation, but railroad companies considered them hazardous - on more than one occasion, a hobo cut an automatic air brake hose to make an unscheduled stop for himself. Hostile railroad police sometimes pushed them off of the moving trains, and  many of them were crushed by shifting loads of freight or died from trying to jump onto or off of cars.
Illegal Travelers didn't all ride inside the cars. Many, like this man, rode on a car's underbelly framework.
Behaving, paying passengers didn’t usually worry about being pitched off a moving train by the railroad police, but they did run the risk of being pitched into a river because of inherent weaknesses in bridges. On 7 August 1904, Denver & Rio Grande No. 11 was chugging through Colorado. It approached a simple timber frame trestle bridge, 110-B, which was judged to be “weak and in bad condition.” Earlier that day, the raging water below had torn an even weaker bridge from its spot, parts of which rammed into 110-B and weakened it further. So when No. 11 tried to cross, 110-B collapsed and it plunged into the torrent below. Eighty-eight people died.

In many cases, bridges like 110-B were classified as weak because they hadn’t been restructured to accommodate the increasing size of trains. According to an 1885 report from Engineering News, one bridge on the Central New Jersey, with an allowable stress of 10,000 psi, was subjected to loads of 22,000 psi. Many other railroads suffered similar problems, the report said, because they used old trusses from mid-century. After all, they liked to economize. 

Bridge Calamities like this transpired when a hefty train crossed a
not-so-hefty bridge, and when bridges were poorly built or maintenanced.
Some bridge builders also had an economizing impulse, or simply lacked skill. Most bridges built before the Civil War were either constructed by the railroads themselves or unsupervised contractors. Sometimes, neither group boasted much skill or expertise, though the B&O’s Carrolton Viaduct proves that such traits did exist in the early days. During the Civil War, railroad repair crews gained lots of experience by frantically repairing/rebuilding bridges attacked by the enemy. The B&O’s financial records confirm this: in the last four full fiscal years of the 1850s, they their average annual bridge expenditure was $40,900, but in the four fiscal years during the war it was $135,775. Then during the sixties, large bridge-building companies, like Phoenix Iron, emerged. They were heavily contracted but rarely supervised, so there was, in the words of Mark Aldrich, “no incentive save reputation for the contractor to perform honestly or competently.” As a result, many low-quality bridges were produced. It wouldn’t be until the 1870s that many railroads would systematically supervise the companies.

Bad maintenance also plagued railroad bridges. Rotted wooden beams, assert a number of post-accident reports, often caused or contributed to bridge collapses. It turns out that railroad managers sometimes knew beforehand about the deteriorated condition of a bridge that collapsed. Some companies (particularly the Erie and the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh) responded to the problem of maintenance failures by requiring thorough and frequent bridge inspections, followed by detailed reports and, when necessary, action. But many railroads did not follow suit and/or procrastinated about fixing problems, at least according to one expert, who wrote in 1891 that all too many railroads waited until bridges were at the point of collapse before undertaking repairs.

In a few states, like New York, ‘soft regulation’ (the application of public pressure instead of laws and rules to urge compliance with certain standards) successfully improved bridges. In January 1884, the state’s railroad commission requested accurate drawings of and other information on every railroad bridge in the state. It then hired bridge inspector Charles Stowell to assess the bridges and report needed changes. A number of companies reinforced their bridges ahead of time to protect themselves from bad press, and many others took action after Stowell’s 1,600 page report displayed and disparaged the unsound conditions of most of the bridges. Vermont engaged in similar soft regulation and achieved similar results, but such a positive impact didn’t reverberate far beyond the borders of the few states that took action.

Railroads that didn’t heavily care for their routes weren’t even prepared to deal with wooden bridge fires, which could be caused by anything from lightning to locomotive sparks. At the very least, bridges would be equipped with some water pails upon construction; at most, railroads focus on building iron bridges in lieu of wooden ones. Thankfully, iron was growing in popularity. On a national level, by 1889, there were ~737,000 wooden bridges and only ~30,000 iron ones. But the vast majority (~722,000) of those wooden bridges were under twenty feet long; in the twenty feet and over category, iron bridges outnumbered wooden bridges by ~24,000 to ~15,000.

Small wooden bridges should not be discounted, though, for they could be just as deadly as much longer ones. Take the example of a fifteen-foot long wooden bridge over a culvert in Chatsworth, Illinois. Accounts differ on whether or not the bridge was still on fire when a Toledo, Peoria & Western train tried to cross it, but at the very least it had sustained serious fire damage and collapsed under the train; eighty people were killed.

Come back next Monday for A Dangerous Ride - Installment Six. You’ll learn about fire hazards to passengers, the campaign against them, and the development of technologies that made passengers safer.

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