As today marks the 119th anniversary of the passing of the Railway Safety Appliance Act of 1893, let’s take a look at some of the important features of the law and how it has affected freight cars to this day.
Prior to 1893
Before the Railway Safety Appliance Act made them legally required, railroads had been very slow to adopt new equipment that showed clear signs of making the industry a safer and even more efficient workplace. Until then, things had been done much the way they were for the previous sixty years – despite the unprecedented growth in the industry as a whole, and railroad equipment in general in that time. Cars were still coupled by hand, by dropping a metal pin into a link between two cars as they were pushed together. Trains were still braked by hand, by turning wheels on the roofs of cars connected by rods and chains to the brake shoes on the trucks below. Safety appliances, when present at all, adhered to few common standards between railroads despite the interchange of equipment.
The result of this was death and injury on an unimaginable scale. Brakemen were at the bottom of the railroad seniority list and were the most apt to be impacted. Coupling cars required perfect timing, and fast reflexes and was usually accomplished completely out of sight of the engineer. Braking cars from the lofty and rocking perch atop a box car or hopper of loose coal was a daring feat on even the best of days let alone the 24 / 7 weather – regardless world of railroading. In the decade preceding the passage of the Act, 5,623 railway deaths and 20,445 injuries were reported (from Railroad Gazette, Feb. 8, 1893). For trainmen, the statistics showed in 1893 you had a 1 in 9 chance of being injured, 1 in 115 in being killed at work in 1893. Coupling alone accounted for approximately 44% of those incidents (per Interstate Commerce Commission Activities 1887-1937, published by the ICC in 1937.) It is known that some hiring offices would seek applicants missing one or two fingers for positions – it was a sign they had previous job experience and also a telling fact as to the prevalence of such injuries.
Not only were the consequences of these outdated technologies dire for workers, they also put a squeeze on the railroads’ bottom line as well. Trains were limited in length and speed by the strength of the link-and-pin couplers and by the number of brakemen needed to stop a moving train one car at a time. The slack-filled links also created rough handling and undoubtedly many damage claims from shippers. Why then were the railroads so slow to adopt change?
A commonly held belief at the time was that railroad management simply didn’t care enough about its employees to make the changes. Equipment cost money and labor in the 19th Century was a cheap commodity with prices held low by a steady stream of immigrants – many recruited overseas by the railroad companies themselves. These attitudes and economics were not limited to railroading but common to all industries in America at the time from coal mines to garment factories.
But what then of the inefficiencies of the old equipment? Here is where railroad management had one argument on their behalf that other industries did not – interchange. Railroads had evolved into large multi-state systems. Some were large on their own, others were small but almost all connected with one another to deliver goods almost anywhere. Such was the advantage behind adopting a standard track gauge. Equipment from one railroad could be transferred to another carrier. Because of this, all of the equipment had to meet the same standards and the width of the wheels was only one part. If a railroad were to adopt a new coupler, or a new brake, or even something as seemingly inconsequential as a new bearing size for wheels, it would have a ripple effect all across the country. The problem was not only whether or not to adopt the emerging technologies, but which of them to choose.
Congress Steps In
New coupler, braking and other patents came on the market like wildfire to meet the demand following the Civil War and continuing into the 1880s. Railroads, for all of the reasons above, were slow to adopt. By the 1890s, the public could stand no more. By then many railroads had added air brakes and other safety modifications to passenger equipment. These stayed on home rails so interchange was less an obstacle and passenger deaths were of course seriously bad publicity. The railroads themselves acknowledged that there was a need for national standards (at the same time protesting government actions at the states’ level) and created the Master Car Builders’ Association in 1891.
Pushed by the public outcry, after decades of proposed by failed legislation, Congress passed the Railway Safety Appliance Act in 1893. This gave railroads a firm timeline to adopt certain technologies or pay a financial penalty ($100 / offense – a hefty sum for the time especially considering the volume of equipment.) The act called for automatic couplers, continuous brakes on trains (“in sufficient number… that the engineer could control the speed of the train without the use of handbrakes”) and powered driving wheel brakes on locomotives, and grab irons for the safety of men riding and boarding equipment. It did not specify which of the competing systems of these technologies they must adopt only that they comply within the specified times – originally 1898. It also held that any employee injured on the job because of a lack of compliance in these systems could not be held accountable for his damages. (An amazing number of previous injuries were attributed simply to “negligence.”)
It is also important to understand that in March of 1893, American railroads did not become instantly and universally safer. The act could only apply to railroads under the auspices of the Interstate Commerce Commission. That is, they had to be “common carriers” (the served any customer and could interchange with other lines) and operate across state lines. Many industrial roads, narrow gauge, and logging operations, and even smaller common carriers which did not cross state lines were not covered under the act and could choose not to follow it. Also, the railroads were given several years to comply as even if the decisions were made promptly, it would take time to re-equip the tens of thousands of cars in service. Ultimately some deadlines were pushed back and full provisions of the Act were not in place until August 1, 1900.
A following act in 1903 extended these provisions to all vehicles operating in interstate commerce (so an intra-state railroad that wished to interchange now had to comply) and raised the quota for power-brake equipped cars to at least 50% of any train with the ICC having the authority to increase that quota if necessary. Still more court cases would follow to help define the details of the broad-sweeping law. A third act in 1910 provided more specifics on safety appliances such as ladders, steps and handbrakes and further defined what was and was not required to comply. It had taken 20 years to get any legislation passed, and nearly 20 more to make meaningful changes, but finally there was progress.
Despite corporate opposition, the implementation of the Acts is largely seen as a cooperative effort, not a confrontational relationship between the ICC and railroads. As a result, railroad fatality and injury rates plummeted. From 1893 to 1908, numbers of trainman deaths and injuries fell by 1/3 or better – despite a 43% increase in the number of men employed (Railway Gazette, March 11, 1910.) The ensuing decades would mark the peak of railroading in the United States – managements’ cries of lost revenues silenced by record profits.
Today, the appliances required by these laws seem so sensible, so universal, the effect of the changes is easy to overlook. The relationship between corporations, labor and government continues to evolve – perhaps not as cooperatively in spirit as during the implimentation of this legislation – but for a greater good overall. It is also important to remember that even these accomplishments were not made quickly, and with our without them, railroading remains a business that can only be successful everyone puts safety first.