The Breakdown of Our Railway Transportation

Neglect of Motive Power Maintenance the Key to the Situation
Scientific American—June 1, 1918


WE who ride in the "varnished cars" are often at a loss to understand the frequently published reports that the railroads are unable to handle the supplies that are not only essential to the existence of the inhabitants of our cities and towns but as well as for our armies both abroad and at home. At every terminal point, and scattered at frequent intervals along the thousands of miles of tracks all over the country, are seen herds of great locomotives, hissing with steam, the embodiment of vast pent up power. The boiler is there, the wheels are all there, nothing seems to be missing from the machinery. Why can't they get the trains over the road?

Unfortunately this is also the view taken for many years by the officials who have been in charge of our railway management. They are wise in the intricacies of the stock market; they provide wonderful and luxurious trains for the transportation of their passengers, but when it comes to the grimy details of the machinery that keeps the trains moving they have shown most remarkable obtuseness. The passenger trains are the ones that make the show to the public, and no expense is spared on them; but it is the unpicturesque freight train that earns the money, and, strange to say, this is the direction in which petty economies have been carried to the extreme, and as long as a freight engine can turn a wheel it is kept at work, whether it is doing the duty intended, and of which it is capable, or not.

The province of a railroad is to sell transportation, particularly the transportation of freight, and to enable it to perform its vital function effectively the operating machinery should be kept in efficient condition. How this is not done is in a measure indicated by a report made by inspectors of the Interstate Commerce Commission last winter; and one example taken from this report will indicate what inefficiency in this direction means. At a roundhouse of one road there were 22 locomotives outside waiting for repairs. One of these had been waiting for four days; and assuming that this engine was capable of hauling 1,200 tons, when in good order, which is undoubtedly far below its actual capacity, and also assuming that it would cover 65 miles a day with its train, which is also a conservative figure, the delay of four days would mean that the road lost a service that would have moved 312,000 tons one mile; ton-miles being the railroad standard for calculating work done. Stating the case in another way, a mechanical plant costing in the neighborhood of $50,000 was kept idle four days because the owners had not provided the facilities for keeping it in operation. Any business man with manufacturing experience will appreciate what this means. This of course is considering only the unnecessary waiting time, without taking into account the time required for the actual repair work.

Of course this may be said to be an extreme case, but nevertheless it is a picture of what has been going on in railroad practice for years, as can be proven by consulting the files of any publication devoted to railroad matters for as far back as anyone cares to go. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but they are surprisingly few considering the great number of roads in this country and the enormous amount of business they are required to handle. As a rule, however, the provision made for maintaining the operative machinery would be considered by men on other lines of business who use machinery as preposterously inadequate.

We constantly read glowing statements of the enterprise of the railroads in buying big engines to handle their rapidly growing business, but we hear little of the fact that these same roads have made absolutely no provision for maintaining these great and enormously expensive machines. Take the case of the roundhouse, where locomotives are housed for cleaning and adjustment after a run; very few can be found that will accommodate one of the newer large engines that are now so generally used, and as a consequence the doors cannot be closed to protect either the men or the machine while this necessary work is being done, and in winter weather both are exposed to bitter cold and driving snow and rain. Indeed, in many cases it has been necessary to break out a large portion of the front walls to enable the engine to get in at all. Under these conditions good work cannot be expected. The repair shops proper are equally inadequate both in size and equipment. In a recent issue of the Railway Age, the leading publication devoted to railroad matters, the statement was made that "One road owning over 2,000 locomotives estimates that its repair facilities can only be brought up to the proper standard by an expenditure of over $10,000,000. Another road operating about 1,500 locomotives has only repair facilities for 750 and these are old shops with inadequate facilities." The same authority estimates that 60 per cent of the locomotives of the country will have to go through the shops for repairs this summer, if we are to go into the next winter in proper shape; but how this is to be done no one can tell.

The lack of shop and housing facilities carries many evils in its train. As there is not room enough in the shops for all the engines needing repairs all but the heaviest work is usually done out of doors, on the open tracks and in winter weather it is evident that all work of this kind must be practically suspended. Moreover, in such track work at least 50 per cent of the workman's time is wasted in going back and forth to the shop for tools, material and the machine work that must be done in the shop, and such work as is done cannot be properly supervised. Still another objection to this practice is that no first-class mechanic will undertake this kind of work, for a competent man can always find employment inside where he will not have to undergo the discomfort and inconvenience of an open railroad yard.

The locomotive repair shop is a standing tribute to the incapacity of those responsible for it. It has already been pointed out that on the great majority of our roads these shops are far too small for the work that ought to be done; but in addition to that, as a rule, the machinery with which they are equipped is ridiculously inadequate, and hopelessly antiquated, with the result that the work done in them is excessively costly. Considered as a whole, the system of locomotive maintenance found on the majority of the railroads in this country could not be more inefficient and wasteful.

With adequate maintenance equipment for the motive power more work and better work could be done with a smaller number of engines; and the addition of large numbers of new locomotives not only adds to the congestion of the yards, but throws new burdens on the already inadequate shops. Inadequate repair facilities does not mean that heavy losses are incurred only through excessive time required for the repairs, but there are additional losses every day a defective locomotive is kept in service owing to its inability to haul full loads, delays in getting over the road and consequent delays of other trains and general disorganization of the traffic of the road. It can readily be seen that the saving, if it can be called saving, of a few thousands in repair facilities results, in the loss of millions of dollars in the legitimate earnings of the railroads of the country, and this has been going on for years.

The failure of our railroads to adequately perform the functions expected of them is, however, not entirely the result of neglected motive power, for similar conditions prevail in most everything connected with freight transportation. The maintenance of freight cars has been slighted to a surprising extent, and terminal facilities have by no means kept pace with the increasing necessities of commerce; although in this matter a considerable portion of the congestion may be attributed to the custom of permitting consignees to delay unloading cars for extended periods, thus using them for storage purposes instead of promptly releasing them to perform their proper function as transporters of freight. This latter abuse, it may be remarked, has grown up as a result of competition between different roads to secure business by extending privileges to shippers. A typical case of this kind was recently noted in New York, where a number of cars was reconsigned five times, each consignee holding the shipment in the cars until he could resell the goods, the result being that the cars were held out of legitimate service for several months.

That such conditions should exist may seem surprising to most people, who have been regaled with glowing accounts of the phenomenal abilities of the officials who control our roads, and the wonderful growth of the roads they operate. As a matter of fact growth of our roads has been due entirely to the growing demands of the commerce of our country, and in spite of their methods of management. Without question, there have been many men of unusual natural ability in charge of the railways of this country; but results tell their own story, and the serious breakdown of our railroads under the emergency demands of war conditions shows conclusively a great lack of scientific and efficient management, not for the time being, but extending back many years. Indeed, our railroads offer a great field for the efficiency expert.

That some of our railroads have provided modern facilities for caring for their motive power is shown by the accompanying illustrations, which indicate the character of the work that has frequently to be done, and which give an idea of the magnitude of the task.

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