Page images



ALL ranks and conditions of men deem themselves to under

stand the importance of Railways, and of course every one is familiar with the mere commonplace railway facts. Probably it is nothing new to many people to hear, that one person in every fifty throughout the population is directly dependent for maintenance upon railways; that the number of journeys made annually is greater than would be arrived at, if each of the men, women, and children, in this country were to travel five times a ỹear a journey of twelve miles ; that the average fare paid by each railway traveller is one shilling and sixpence ; that of the whole number of passengers conveyed in 1858, the killed were in the proportion of 1 in 2,728,257; that this is the greatest proportion occurring since 1853 ? ; that of this number about one half, or 1 in 5,565,645 passengers met his death from causes arising out of his own unisconduct or want of caution. That there are now in operation no fewer than 3128 miles of single line railways, is a circumstance pot calculated to diminish the number of accidents. It is well known, also, that railways of small traffic carry on their business free from accidents ; it is on lines of large and mixed traffic that accidents occur. Thus, for the last eight and a half years, the mean length of line open for traffic has been 8382 miles; and upon 6860 miles owned by 58 companies, above 849,000,000 passengers have been conveyed in that time, and 142 persons have been killed from causes beyond their control; whilst in 1522 miles owned by 85 companies, upon which above 71,000,000 passengers have been carried, no accidents have occurred. Again, it is known, to every one, that some of the great

1 Parliamentary Papers, Session 1, 1859, Nos. 2472, 2498, and 2513. Num. ber of passengers, 139,141,135. Number of killed, 51. In the five years ending December, 1859, the proportion of killed to carried was 1 in 7,907,044 ; in the eight years and a half, ending 30th June, 1858, the proportion of passengers killed was one in 6,480,013, VOL. VIII. NO. XV.




traffic companies are more remarkable for clean bills as to accidents than others of them ; showing the same thing, which many other facts go to show, that a very high proportion of the actual accidents are attributable to causes which it is within the power of the management of the lines to put down. The same was last year reported, by a French commission, to be the state of things on the lines in that country. Let the above facts be borne well in mind, and we shall be the better prepared to come to the consideration of the vitally interesting but complex questionsWhat are the causes of railway accidents? In what degree are companies fairly responsible for them ? In what degree do the existing laws operate to protect the public from accident, and to enforce a due amount of responsibility when accidents occur; and is there any point in which these laws can be altered with probability of beneficial results ?

According to the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed on the 8th Feb., 1858, to inquire into the causes of accidents on railways, and into the possibility of removing any such causes by further legislation, which report was founded on a large body of evidence given by officers of the Board of Trade, by eminent engineers, and by directors and various other officers of railways, the causes of accidents may be classified under the heads-inattention of servants : defective material either in the works or the rolling stock : excessive speed. We will take the last assigned cause in the first place, because it is always made a prominent object in every inquiry of this class, whether taken before a coroner, an officer of the Board of Trade, or a judge and jury in a court of law. But here a difficulty at once arises. How is the speed at which a train is proceeding at the moment a collision, or other miscarriage happens, to be ascertained ? At first sight the thing seems clear as daylight, and so it is, given the daylight, perfectly easy for any one in a train, who can see the quarter-of-mile stones on the side of the line, to tell accurately by his watch what is the pace of the engine over the quarter of a mile. In the night there are no means whatever

1 Parliamentary Paper, Session 1, 1859, No. 2498, pr. 21, 22, 25.

at present for ascertaining with precision what is the velocity of a railway carriage over a small distance. Moreover, the passengers who may have marked the time, &c., shortly previous to the accident, when it comes to be inquired into, are not to be had as witnesses, having proceeded to their destinations, and dispersed in all directions. In practice, therefore, the testimony on this head is confined to that of engine-drivers, guards, and stokers, persons more or less interested and biassed, and who moreover äre, at the best, deposing to an opinion on a matter exceedingly critical and difficult to estimate. Hence, there is no difficulty in acquiescing with the opinion expressed by the officers of the railway department of the Board of Trade, that it is practically impossible to arrive at satisfactory proof of the speed of a train at the time of an accident. Besides, it is not easy to see how excessive speed ever directly causes accidents, except in the rare case of a train being driven, at such a rate, round a sharp curve as to start the carriages off the line, and the still rarer case of over rapidity bringing a train up to a given point in its course, so much in anticipation of its proper time of being there, as to run it into another train that otherwise would have been well out

No doubt, of course, in cases of collision, the greater the momentum with which the colliding bodies impinge, the more serious will be the disaster ; but the question is not, whether the excessive speed does not aggravate accidents, but whether it ever, per se, causes accidents. There is a confident opinion abroad, in utter denial of speed (excepting the above cases) ever causing accidents. Men of high intelligence and long experience tell you they never knew a case where it was the pace that killed. It may well be that an unusual speed, with a heavy load, may bring out, at once, the defect in a worn or illfitting tire, or a weak axle, or the unfastened joint of a rail, and so lead to a mishap; but, in such cases, the unusual speed, though it is the proximate reason, is not the causa causans : in other words, the real responsibility rests not on the engine-driver, but with the departments whose duty it is to keep the rolling stock, or the permanent way, in a safe and sound condition. But it is

of its way.


sufficiently evident how strong the tendency will be, for a railway company and its officials, to throw the blame upon an imputed violation of their regulations as to rate of travelling, rather than take it upon themselves, by admitting their own laches and inefficient superintendence. From 40 to 45 miles an hour appears to be the maximum at which the railways are now travelling; but whether this, or 50 or 60 miles an hour, is an unsafe pace, it is impossible to say absolutely. That may be a perfectly safe pace—that is to say, a pace attended with no probability of riskwith carriages in proper order, along a good road free from obstructions, which would be far from safe, all things else remaining the same, if the road be crowded with trains, or be in a bad condition. An instance is mentioned where a speed of twenty miles an hour was unsafe, with the engine and the road in the condition they were in.” But, for the reasons just indicated, there is always an interest at work to refer every misadventure, on these roads, to over rapidity of motion rather than any other cause : this is always a resource, because it is always a mystery. The device is analogous to the old logical trick of ignotum per ignotius. The accident at Tuxford, on the Great Northern Railway, is an instance. The government inspector, Colonel Wynne, who investigated it officially, says, it cannot be accounted for. The doctrine of railway authorities is, that the speed was the cause. We see a speed clock is spoken of, which is to register the times in which given spaces are passed over; but at present it is a mere ingenious, unshapen project-an infant en ventre de sa mère -of no practical utility whatever. What has been said will, we trust, be found not altogether without its value in use, for professional men engaged on inquiries on railway accidents. A very full body of evidence, comprising numerous facts, and the most trustworthy opinions on this subject, is contained in the minutes of evidence taken before the committee above mentioned. There

? See Captain Galton's Evid., p. 31.

8 See Evid. of J. Locke, M.P., pp. 69, 70 ; Captain Huish, p. 83 ; Lt.-Col. Yollaud, pp. 26, 28, 30 ; and see pp. 17, 25, 31, 32, 49, 61, 62, 69, 104, 112 ; Mr. Gooch, pp. 140, 141 ; and see pp. 146, 150, 162, 165, 168, 173.

As to Speed Clock, Evid. p. 95. To us, we must own, the evidence, both in quantity and weight, seems to preponderate unmistakeably in favour of the conclusion, that accidents ( the exceptions in the text) are never caused by mere speed.

is in that evidence one most remarkable absence: the total omission, namely, of any inclination on the part of the inspectors of the Board of Trade—who inquire into perhaps thirty or forty accidents apiece every year, and the other unconnected evidence-to attribute accidents to the negligence or misconduct of the servants of the lines. From them you find defective management to be the cause of everything that goes wrong on railways : every disaster may be traced to that, they tell us ; some of the directors and officials, on the other hand, insinuate what one would expect them to aver manfully, if they were convinced it were so, that every thing is owing to “ disregard of regulations.” At best, the witnesses, of the latter class, speak each from his knowledge of his own line only; the others from a long and general experience of all the lines in Great Britain and Ireland. Can it be doubted on which side the probability of truth lies ? Is it surprising if railway oracles also, at times, Philippize ? A common mode of misconducting the traffic of a line is to mis up slow and fast trains together, or to send off an express and a stopping train too near to one another. It is in order to provide against these consequences of having coal, mineral, and goods trains running, or rather creeping, on the same lines with swift passenger trains, that the London and North Western Company found themselves obliged to resort to the measure of making a third line. But what is the effect of this " mixing up," as it is technically called, of different descriptions of trains ? Why, “ there is always a pressure upon the driver of the quick train. He is always expected to keep his time; and if, through overcaution—this is my opinion-he is late, I think he will get a bad mark against his name. The pressure is with the man driving an express train to keep his time; therefore he would be very unwilling to stop his train, unless he was perfectly certain that there was a necessity for it; and sometimes he would overshoot the mark of caution. His tendency is always to press on as much as he can.”? That is the servant's tendency; and very natural and almost inevitable it is, under the stated circum

* Colonel Wynne's Evidence, p. 13.


« PreviousContinue »