Death on the Rails

NOWADAYS, TRAVELING BY RAIL is extremely safe, but this was not always the case. In fact, it took several generations to finally tame the “iron horse.” Surrounding this strange and inherently dangerous beast, there were many other hazardous elements. In the words of an old-time railroad man: “Accidents don’t happen by accident.” Besides the trains themselves—especially their brakes—faulty signaling, defective tracks, human error, and organizational blunders were all culprits. Today, because of the knowledge that train travel is usually perfectly safe, any rail accident attracts an inordinate amount of attention from the media and public. However, no such attention was ever paid to the fate of the earliest railroad workers, who put their lives on the line, literally. In Britain in the 1860s, 800 workers were killed every year, ten times the number of passengers who perished. The number of fatalities among both workers and passengers has declined steadily since then, but working on the railroads, particularly on the track, remains a dangerous occupation.

The sheer metallic brutality of railroad accidents often took more than a physical toll on those involved; they also caused mental anguish, which would now be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. An early sufferer, British novelist Charles Dickens, described his feelings after he was involved in an accident at Staplehurst in Kent in 1865. At first, he behaved impeccably, nursing the sick and dying. He was, he said, “not in the least flustered at the time,” but when he clambered back into his passenger car he could not stop shaking. Recounting the incident later also provoked the same reaction: “In writing these words I feel the shake and am obliged to stop.” Dickens never fully recovered from the trauma, remaining frightened of rail travel for the rest of his life, and dying—in a strange coincidence—on the fifth anniversary of the accident.

The only positive outcome of an accident is when it triggers improvement in safety measures or procedures, a process often ghoulishly dubbed “tombstone technology.” This was evident as far back as 1842, after the first major disaster in France at Meudon on the line from Paris to Versailles (see first major rail disaster). Most of the deaths were caused not by the crash itself, but because the compartments were locked—to deter interlopers who had not paid for their tickets—so passengers were unable to escape from the wrecked train. Thereafter, compartments were left unlocked. Similarly, an appalling crash at Armagh in Northern Ireland in 1889 spurred on legislation that greatly increased the railroad regulator’s enforcement powers, and introduced better braking systems. Many of the fatalities in the Armagh crash were children, which heightened the tragedy and prompted such a strong legislative reaction. However, a famous contemporary wit, the Reverend Sydney Smith, suggested that it would take the death of a member of the nobility to really effect change: “We have up to this point been very careless of our railway regulations. The first person of rank who is killed [he suggested a bishop, a breed for whom he had a particular loathing] will put everything in order and produce a code of the most careful rules.”

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Even today, a safety inspector believes that “the railway gets safer and each incident enables us to improve still further.” In the past few decades, installing powered doors, which passengers cannot open, has helped eliminate the problem of people jumping on or off moving trains—a form of idiocy that caused half the deaths and injuries at stations reported by British Rail in the 1980s. But tombstone technology has not always been applied. Wooden coaches had long been known to increase the risk of fire in the event of an accident, but as late as 1928, a crash near Bristol, England, involving these old-fashioned coaches resulted in 15 deaths when inflammable gas ignited. Even then, wood-framed coaches were not entirely abandoned in Britain until after 1945. Technological faults can also combine with other conditions to cause tragedy. In India, the deadly Bihar rail disaster of 1981 is thought to have been caused by flash flooding combined with a brake failure. The train derailed and plunged into a nearby river, taking all 800 of its passengers with it. This was one of the worst accidents in railroad history, claiming the lives of an estimated 500 or more people.

Sometimes a train itself may be faultless, but other structural defects can spell doom. Using steel instead of iron has made rails stronger, but the “joint bar” joining rails can be weak. It was a faulty joint bar that caused an accident at Brétigny-sur-Orge near Paris, France, in the summer of 2013, killing seven people. Often, the rail tracks are only as safe as the structures that support them. Most famously, the first rail bridge over the River Tay in Scotland, built in 1878, was not designed to withstand really high winds. It collapsed a year after it was built, plunging a passenger train into the river below. As that memorably bad poet William McGonagall put it:

Beautiful bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away,

On the last Sabbath day of 1879

Which will be remembered for a very long time

Some accidents are beyond human control. The deadly earthquake and tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 devastated the coast of South Asia. It also caused the world’s worst rail disaster when 1,700 passengers were killed on a coastal railroad in Sri Lanka. Other types of railroad “accident” are all too human, and deliberate. Acts of railroad sabotage have been common, not least in the repertoire of British Army Colonel T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia (see The Hejaz Railway). Many saboteurs, such as the French railroad men who wrecked their own tracks in the latter stages of the German Occupation in World War II, are regarded as heroes. Others, such as members of the French Communist party responsible for a crash that killed 21 people in 1947 on the main line between Paris and Lille, are generally considered terrorists. More recently, attacks at stations and on trains as far apart as Madrid, London, and Mumbai demonstrate the vulnerability of railroads to attack by those with evil intent.

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Just as pilots are blamed for aircraft crashes, so engineers are always in the spotlight. Fatigue, often after 12 or more hours at work, was the biggest problem before legal limits were introduced. This automatic fatigue syndrome affected not just engineers but other workers as well, such as the overworked signal repairmen who caused the Clapham disaster in London in 1988. Back in 1879, a time when the companies were fighting any attempt to limit working hours, a parliamentary inquiry reported the case of a brakeman who had been on duty for 19 hours and consequently failed to apply the brake on his train. And of course engineers are not immune to personal problems. Many people believe that the worst crash ever recorded on the London Underground, at Moorgate in 1975, which killed 43 people, was caused by a suicidal engineer.

The most frequent cause of railroad accidents, killing thousands over the decades, is speeding. Nowadays, there are many more controls preventing engineers from speeding, and warning systems to notify them if they do. However, even on modern trains, speeding remains a problem, as seen in the appalling accident that killed 79 people in the summer of 2013 just outside Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. One engineer who died while traveling too fast went on to become a cult figure in American folklore and folksong—Casey Jones. A crack engineer on the Chicago Fast Mail, Jones “took his farewell trip to the promised land” when he crashed into a stalled train in the fog in April 1900 while trying to make up lost time. Jones was killed on impact, but he saved the lives of all his passengers and crew by slowing the train at the last moment. As Wallace Saunders put it in The Ballad of Casey Jones:

Casey smiled, said, ‘I’m feelin’ fine,

Gonna ride that train to the end of the line.

There’s ridges and bridges, and hills to climb,

Got a head of steam and ahead of time.’

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Thankfully, train crashes are increasingly rare, especially in industrialized countries. In fact, it is car drivers, rather than train engineers, who remain the most likely cause of accidents on the railroads, particularly at grade crossings. In the US, this problem is much worse than elsewhere because there are about 200,000 grade crossings across the country. They account for some 4,000 accidents and 500 deaths every year, nearly all of them car occupants, rather than rail passengers. In three-quarters of the cases, an official report attributed the disaster to “the impatience of the driver of the vehicle involved,” a tendency that improvements in the design of grade crossings and modernization of the warning signs can do little to improve. Train engineers have to sound their horn at every road crossing, however minor, which is why in the US trains are heard so frequently. Cumbersome trucks also pose a threat. On a line in rural France in 1997, a diesel train sliced a slow-moving tanker truck in two, killing 31 people. It was the worst rail accident in France, a country proud of the safety of its trains.

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Railroad management has always been a legitimate target for blame, as one 19th-century American lawyer in a case involving a head-on collision remarked: “This is one helluva way to run a railroad.” Operations were initially haphazard, because no one knew anything about railroads. As writer-engineer L.T.C. Rolt put it: “When we consider operational methods in the early days of railways the remarkable thing is that there were not more serious accidents.” But organizational danger has, if anything, grown over the past few decades, mainly due to the outsourcing of railwork and maintenance, and the increasing prioritization of performance, punctuality, and, of course, cost. These kinds of institutional inadequacies led to the most serious accident of modern times in Europe. In June 1998, 101 passengers were killed after the locomotive on a German high-speed train separated from the coaches, which then derailed. At the time, the Germans were desperately trying to catch up with the French, who had taken the lead in Europe in high-speed rail travel, and had taken short cuts to achieve the right balance of suspension, wheel design, and track flexibility. Deutsche Bahn had been warned of the problem but chose to ignore it, perhaps due to a combination of pride and an unwillingness to delay the introduction of high-speed travel.

Arguably the worst systemic problems in modern railroads—including several fatal accidents—were caused by the privatization of British Rail in the 1990s. It was replaced by 94 separate organizations, many run by inexperienced executives. Track maintenance was also outsourced to a variety of companies, and it was shortcomings in this area that led to a crash at Hatfield, north of London, in 2000. Four passengers were killed and 70 were injured. Investigations into the crash revealed that the cause was a fractured rail, which exposed the failings of the private maintenance companies. Train speeds throughout Britain were reduced to a mere 20mph (32kph) for more than a year, which had repercussions for passengers and train companies alike. As a result of the accident, track maintenance was partially re-nationalized in 2002.

In the 21st century, as in the 19th century, railroads and passengers are vulnerable to both natural and unnatural disasters. However, thanks to modern technology, trains are statistically the safest and most eco-friendly way to travel.

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