A REALIZING sense of the necessity of ultimately adopting some system of protection against the danger of rear-end collisions was, above all else, brought directly home to American railroad managers through the Revere disaster. In discussing and comparing the appliances used in the practical operation of railroads in different countries, there is one element, however, which can never be left out of the account. The intelligence, quickness of perception and capacity for taking care of themselves—that combination of qualities which, taken together, constitute individuality and adaptability to circumstance—vary greatly among the railroad employees of different countries. The American locomotive engineer, as he is called, is especially gifted in this way. He can be relied on to take care of himself and his train under circumstances which in other countries would be thought to insure disaster.


Volumes on this point were included in the fact that though at the time of the Revere disaster many of the American lines, especially in Massachusetts, were crowded with the trains of a mixed traffic, the necessity of making any provision against rear-end collisions, further than by directing those in immediate charge of the trains to keep a sharp look out and to obey their printed orders, seemed hardly to have occurred to any one. The English block system was now and then referred to in a vague, general way; but it was very questionable whether one in ten of those referring to it knew anything about it or had ever seen it in operation, much less investigated it. A characteristic illustration of this was afforded in the course of those official investigations which followed the Revere disaster, and have already more than once been alluded to. Prior to that disaster the railroads of Massachusetts had, as a rule, enjoyed a rather exceptional freedom from accidents, and there was every reason to suppose that their regulations were as exact and their system as good as those in use in other parts of the country. Yet it then appeared that in the rules of very few of the Massachusetts roads had any provision, even of the simplest character, been made as to the effect of telegraphic orders, or the course to be pursued by employees in charge of trains on their receipt. The appliances for securing intervals between following trains were marked by a quaint simplicity. They were, indeed,


"singularly primitive," as the railroad commissioners on a subsequent occasion described them, when it appeared that on one of the principal roads of the state the interval between two closely following trains was signalled to the engineer of the second train by a station-master's holding up to him as he passed a number of fingers corresponding to the number of minutes since the first train had gone by. For the rest the examination revealed, as the nearest approach to a block system, a queer collection of dials, sand-glasses, green flags, colored lanterns and hand-targets. The climax in the course of that investigation was, however, reached when some reference, involving a description of it, was made to the English block. This was met by a protest on the part of one veteran superintendent, who announced that it might work well under certain circumstances, but for himself he could not be responsible for the operation of a road running the number of trains he had charge of in reliance on any such system. The subject, in fact, was one of which he knew absolutely nothing; not even that, through the block system and through it alone, fourteen trains were habitually and safely moved under circumstances where he moved one. This occurred in 1871, and though eight years have since elapsed information in regard to the block system is not yet very widely disseminated inside of railroad circles, much less outside of them. It is none the less a necessity of the


future. It has got to be understood, and, in some form, it has got to be adopted; for even in America there are limits to the reliance which, when the lives and limbs of many are at stake, can be placed on the "sharp look out" of any class of men, no matter how intelligent they may be.

The block system is of English origin, and it scarcely needs to be said that it was adopted by the railroad corporations of that country only when they were driven to it by the exigencies of their traffic. But for that system, indeed, the most costly portion of the tracks of the English roads must of necessity have been duplicated years ago, as their traffic had fairly outgrown those appliances of safety which have even to this time been found sufficient in America. There were points, for instance, where two hundred and seventy regular trains of one line alone passed daily. On the London & North Western there are more than sixty through down trains, taking no account of local trains, each day passing over the same line of tracks, among which are express trains which stop nowhere, way trains which stop everywhere, express-freight, way-freight, mineral trains and parcel trains. On the Midland road there are nearly twice as many similar trains on each track. On the Metropolitan railway the average interval is three and one-third minutes between trains. In one case points were mentioned where 270 regular trains of one line alone passed a given junction during each twenty-four hours,—where 470 trains


passed a single station, the regular interval between them being but five-eighths of a mile,—where 132 trains entered and left a single station during three hours of each evening every day, being one train in eighty-two seconds. In 1870 there daily reached or left the six stations of the Boston roads some 385 trains; while no less than 650 trains a day were in the same year received and despatched from a single one of the London stations. On one single exceptional occasion 1,111 trains, carrying 145,000 persons, were reported as entering and leaving this station in the space of eighteen hours, being rather more than a train a minute. Indeed it may well be questioned whether the world anywhere else furnishes an illustration so apt and dramatic of the great mechanical achievements of recent times as that to be seen during the busy hours of any week-day from the signal and interlocking galleries which span the tracks as they enter the Charing Cross or Cannon street stations in London. Below and in front of the galleries the trains glide to and fro, coming suddenly into sight from beyond the bridges and as suddenly disappearing,—winding swiftly in and out, and at times four of them running side by side on as many tracks but in both directions,—the whole making up a swiftly shifting maze of complex movement under the influence of which a head unaccustomed to the sight grows actually giddy. Yet it is all done so quietly and smoothly, with such an absence of haste and nervousness on the part of the 


stolid operators in charge, that it is not easy to decide which most to wonder at, the almost inconceivable magnitude and despatch of the train-movement or the perfection of the appliances which make it possible. No man concerned in the larger management of railroads, who has not passed a morning in those London galleries, knows what it is to handle a great city's traffic.

Perfect as it is in its way, however, it may well be questioned whether the block system as developed in England is likely to be generally adopted on American railroads. Upon one or two of them, and notably on the New Jersey Central and a division of the Pennsylvania, it has already been in use for a number of years. From an American point of view, however, it is open to a number of objections. That in itself it is very perfect and has been successfully elaborated so as to provide for almost every possible contingency is proved by the results daily accomplished by means of it.* The English lines are made to do an, incredible amount of work with comparative few accidents. The block system is, however, none the less a very clumsy and complicated one, necessitating the constant employment of a large number of skilled operators. Here is the great defect in it from the American point of view. In this country labor is scarce and capital costly. The effort is always towards the perfecting of

* An excellent popular description of this system will be found in Barry's Railway Appliances, Chapter V. 


labor-saving machines. Hitherto the pressure of traffic on the lines has not been greater than could be fairly controlled by simpler appliances, and the expense of the English system is so heavy that its adoption, except partially, would not have been warranted. As Barry says in his treatise on the subject, "one can 'buy gold too dear'; for if every possible known precaution is to be taken, regardless of cost, it may not pay to work a railway at all."

It is tolerably safe, therefore, to predict that the American block system of the future will be essentially different from the present English system. The basis—electricity—will of course be the same; but, while the operator is everywhere in the English block, his place will be supplied to the utmost possible degree by automatic action in the American. It is in this direction that the whole movement since the Revere disaster has been going on, and the advance has been very great. From peculiarities of condition also the American block must be made to cover a multitude of weak points in the operation of roads, and give timely notice of dangers against which the English block provides only to a limited degree, and always through the presence of yet other employees. For instance, as will presently be seen, many more accidents and, in Europe even, far greater loss of life is caused by locomotives coming in contact with vehicles at points where highways cross railroad tracks at a level therewith than by rear-end collisions; meanwhile throughout 


America, even in the most crowded suburban neighborhoods, these crossings are the rule, whereas in Europe they are the exception. The English block affords protection against this danger by giving electric notice to gatemen; but gatemen are always supposed. So also as respects the movements of passengers in and about stations in crossing tracks as they come to or leave the trains, or prepare to take their places in them. The rule in Europe is that passenger crossings at local stations are provided over or under the tracks; in America, however, almost nowhere is any provision at all made, but passengers, men, women and children, are left to scramble across tracks as best they can in the face of passing trains. They are expected to take care of themselves, and the success with which they do it is most astonishing. Having been brought up to this self-care all their lives, they do not, as would naturally be supposed, become confused and stumble under the wheels of locomotives; and the statistics seem to show that no more accidents from this cause occur in America than in Europe. Nevertheless some provision is manifestly desirable to notify employees as well as passengers that trains are approaching, especially where way-stations are situated on curves.

Again, it is well known that, next to collisions, the greatest source of danger to railroad trains is due to broken tracks. It is, of course, apparent that tracks may at any time be broken by accident, as by


earth-slides, derailment or the fracture of rails. This danger has to be otherwise provided for; the block has nothing to do with it further than to prevent a train delayed by any such break from being run into by any following train. The broken track which the perfect block should give notice of is that where the break is a necessary incident to the regular operation of the road. It is these breaks which, both in America and elsewhere, are the fruitful source of the great majority of railroad accidents, and draw-bridges and switches, or facing points as they are termed in the English reports, are most prominent among them. Wherever there is a switch, the chances are that in the course of time there will be an accident.

Four matters connected with train movement have now been specified, in regard to which some provision is either necessary or highly desirable: these are rear collisions, tracks broken at draw-bridges or at switches, highway grade crossings, and the notification of agents and passengers at stations. The effort in America, somewhat in advance of that crowded condition of the lines which makes the adoption of something a measure of present necessity, has been directed towards the invention of an automatic system which at one and the same time should cover all the dangers and provide for all the needs which have been referred to, eliminating the risks incident to human forgetfulness, drowsiness and weakness of nerves. Can reliable automatic provision thus be made ?—The English 


authorities are of opinion that it cannot. They insist that "if automatic arrangements be adopted, however suitable they may be to the duties which they have to perform, they should in all cases be used as additions to, and not as substitutions for, safety machinery worked by competent signal-men. The signal-man should be bound to exercise his observation, care and judgment, and to act thereon; and the machine, as far as possible, be such that if he attempts to go wrong it shall check him."

It certainly cannot be said that the American electrician has as yet demonstrated the incorrectness of this conclusion, but he has undoubtedly made a good deal of progress in that direction. Of the various automatic blocks which have now been experimented with or brought into practice, the Hall Electric and the Union Safety Signal Company systems have been developed to a very marked degree of perfection. They depend for their working on diametrically opposite principles: the Hall signals being worked by means of an electric circuit caused by the action of wheels moving on the rails, and conveyed through the usual medium of wires; while, under the other system, the wires being wholly dispensed with, a continuous electric circuit is kept up by means of the rails, which are connected for the purpose, and the signals are then acted upon through the breaking of this normal circuit by the movement of locomotives and cars. So far as the signals are concerned, there is 


no essential difference between the two systems, except that Hall supplies the necessary motive force by the direct action of electricity, while in the other case dependence is placed upon suspended weights. Of the two the Hall system is the oldest and most thoroughly elaborated, having been compelled to pass through that long and useful tentative process common to all inventions, during which they are regarded as of doubtful utility and are gradually developed through a succession of partial failures. So far as Hall's system is concerned this period may now fairly be regarded as over, for it is in established use on a number of the more crowded roads of the North, and especially of New England, while the imperfections necessarily incident to the development of an appliance at once so delicate and so complicated, have for certain purposes been clearly overcome. Its signal arrangements, for instance, to protect draw-bridges, stations and grade-crossings are wholly distinct from its block system, through which it provides against dangers from collision and broken tracks. So far as draw-bridges are concerned, the protection it affords is perfect. Not only is its interlocking apparatus so designed that the opening of the draw blocks all approach to it, but the signals are also reciprocal; and if through carelessness or automatic derangement any train passes the block, the draw-tender is notified at once of the fact in ample time to stop it.


In the case of a highway crossing at a level, the electric bell under Hall's system is placed at the crossing, giving notice of the approaching train from the moment it is within half a mile until it passes; so that, where this appliance is in use, accidents can happen only through the gross carelessness of those using the highway. When the electric bell is silent there is no train within half a mile and the crossing is safe; it is not safe while the bell is ringing. As it now stands the law usually provides that the prescribed signals, either bell or whistle, shall be given from the locomotive as it approaches the highway, and at a fixed distance from it. The signal, therefore, is given at a distance of several hundred yards, more or less, from the point of danger. The electric system improves on this by placing the signal directly at the point of danger,—the traveller approaches the bell, instead of the bell approaching the traveller. At any point of crossing which is really dangerous, that is at any crossing where trees or cuttings or buildings mask the railroad from the highway, this distinction is vital. In the one case notice of the unseen danger must be given and cannot be unobserved; in the other case whether it is really given or not may depend on the condition of the atmosphere or the direction of the wind.

Usually, however, in New England the level crossings of the more crowded thoroughfares, perhaps one in ten of the whole number, are protected


by gates or flag-men. Under similar circumstances in Great Britain there is an electric connection between a bell in the cabin of the gate-keeper and the nearest signal boxes of the block system on each side of the crossing, so that due notice is given of the approach of trains from either direction. In this country it has heretofore been the custom to warn gatekeepers by the locomotive whistle, to the intense annoyance of all persons dwelling near the crossing, or to make them depend for notice on their own eyes. Under the Hall system, however, the gate-keeper is automatically signalled to be on the look out, if he is attending to his duty; or, if he is neglecting it, the electric bell in some degree supplies his place, without releasing the corporation from its liability. In America the heavy fogs of England are almost unknown, and the brilliant head lights, heavy bells and shrill high whistles in use on the locomotives would at night, it might be supposed, give ample notice to the most careless of an approaching train. Continually recurring experience shows, however, that this is not the case. Under these circumstances the electric bell at the crossing becomes not only a matter of justice almost to the employee who is stationed there, but a watchman over him.

This, however, like the other forms of signals which have been referred to, is, in the electric system, a mere adjunct of its chief use, which is the block,—they are all as it were things thrown into


the bargain. As contradistinguished from the English block, which insures only an unoccupied track, the automatic blocks seek to insure an unbroken track as well,—that is not only is each segment into which a road is divided, protected as respects following trains by, in the case of Hall's system, double signals watching over each other, the one at safety, the other at danger,—both having to combine to open the block,—but every switch or facing point, the throwing of which may break the main track, is also protected. The Union Signal Company's system it is claimed goes still further than this and indicates any break in the track, though due to accidental fracture or displacement of rails. Without attempting this the Hall system has one other important feature in common with the English block, and a very important feature, that of enabling station agents in case of sudden emergency to control the train movement within half a mile or more of their stations on either side. Within the given distance they can stop trains either leaving or approaching. The inability to do this has been the cause of some of the most disastrous collisions on record, and notably those at Revere and at Thorpe.

The one essential thing, however, in every perfect block system, whether automatic or worked by operators, is that in case of accident or derangement or doubt, the signal should rest at danger. This the Hall system now fully provides for, and in case even


of the willful displacement of a switch, an occurrence by no means without precedent in railroad experience, the danger signal could not but be displayed, even though the electric connection had been tampered with. Accidents due to willfullness, however, can hardly be provided for except by police precautions. Train wrecking is not to be taken into account as a danger incident to the ordinary operation of a railroad. Carelessness or momentary inadvertence, or, most dangerous of all, that recklessness—that unnecessary assumption of risk somewhere or at some time, which is almost inseparable from a long immunity from disaster-these are the great sources of peril most carefully to be guarded against. The complicated and unceasing train movement depends upon many thousand employees, all of whom make mistakes or assume risks sometimes;—and did they not do so they would be either more or less than men. Being, however, neither angels nor machines, but ordinary mortals whose services are bought for money at the average market rate of wages, it would certainly seem no small point gained if an automatic machine could be placed on guard over those whom it is the great effort of railroad discipline to reduce to automatons. Could this result be attained, the unintentional throwing of a lever or the carelessness which leaves it thrown, would simply block the track instead of leaving it broken. An example of this, and at the same time a most forcible illustration of the possible 


cost of a small economy in the application of a safeguard, was furnished in the case of the Wollaston disaster. At the time of that disaster, the Old Colony railroad had for several years been partially equipped on the portion of its track near Boston, upon which the accident occurred, with Hall's system. It had worked smoothly and easily, was we'll understood by the employees, and the company was sufficiently satisfied with it to have even then made arrangements for its extension. Unfortunately, with a too careful eye to the expenditure involved, the line had been but partially equipped; points where little danger was apprehended had not been protected. Among these was the "Foundry switch," so called, near Wollaston. Had this switch been connected with the system and covered by a signal-target, the mere act of throwing it would have automatically blocked the track, and only when it was re-set would the track have been opened. The switch was not connected, the train hands were recklessly careless, and so a trifling economy cost in one unguarded moment some fifty persons life and limb, and the corporation more than $300,000.

One objection to the automatic block is generally based upon the delicacy and complicated character of the machinery on which its action necessarily depends; and this objection is especially urged against those other portions of the Hall system, covering draws and level crossings, which have been particularly described. It is argued that


it is always liable to get out of order from a great multiplicity of causes, some of which are very difficult to guard against, and that it is sure to get out of order during any electric disturbance; but it is during storms that accidents are most likely to occur, and especially is this the case at highway grade-crossings. It is comparatively easy to avoid accidents so long as the skies are clear and the elements quiet; but it is exactly when this is not the case and when it becomes necessary to use every precaution, that electricity as a safeguard fails or runs mad, and, by participating in the general confusion, proves itself worse than nothing. Then it will be found that those in charge of trains and tracks, who have been educated into a reliance upon it under ordinary circumstances, will from force of habit, if nothing else, go on relying upon it, and disaster will surely follow.

This line of reasoning is plausible, but none the less open to one serious objection; it is sustained neither by statistics nor by practical experience. Moreover it is not new, for, slightly varied in phraseology, it has been persistently urged against the introduction of every new railroad appliance, and, indeed, was first and most persistently of all urged against the introduction of railroads themselves. Pretty and ingenious in theory, practically it is not feasible!—for more than half a century this formula has been heard. That the automatic electric signal system is complicated, and in many of its 


parts of most delicate construction, is undeniable. So also is the locomotive. In point of fact the whole railroad organization from beginning to end—from machine-shop to train-movement—is at once so vast and complicated, so delicate in that action which goes on with such velocity and power, that it is small cause for wonder that in the beginning all plain, sensible, practical men scouted it as the fanciful creation of visionaries. They were wholly justified in so doing; and to-day any sane man would of course pronounce the combined safety and rapidity of ordinary railroad movement an utter impossibility, did he not see it going on before his eyes. So it is with each new appliance. It is ever suggested that at last the final result has already been reached. It is but a few years, as will presently be seen, since the Westinghouse brake encountered the old "pretty and ingenious" formula. Going yet a step further, and taking the case of electricity itself, the bold conception of operating an entire line of single track road wholly as respects one half of its train movement by telegraph, and without the use of any time table at all, would once have been condemned as mad. Yet to-day half of the vast freight movement of this continent is carried on in absolute reliance on the telegraph. Nevertheless it is still not uncommon to hear among the class of men who rise to the height of their capacity in themselves being automaton superintendents that they do not believe in deviating


from their time tables and printed rules; that, acting under them, the men know or ought to know exactly what to do, and any interference by a train despatcher only relieves them of responsibility, and is more likely to lead to accidents than if they were left alone to grope their own way out.

Another and very similar argument frequently urged against the electric, in common with all other block systems by the large class who prefer to exercise their ingenuity in finding objections rather than in overcoming difficulties, is that they breed dependence and carelessness in employees ;—that engine-drivers accustomed to rely on the signals, rely on them implicitly, and get into habits of recklessness which lead inevitably to accidents, for which they then contend the signals, and not they themselves, are responsible. This argument is, indeed, hardly less familiar than the "pretty and ingenious" formula just referred to. It has, however, been met and disposed of by Captain Tyler in his annual reports to the Board of Trade in a way which can hardly be improved upon:—

It is a favorite argument with those who oppose the introduction of some of these improvements, or who make excuses for the want of them, that their servants are apt to become more careless from the use of them, in consequence of the extra security which they are believed to afford; and it is desirable to consider seriously how much of truth there is in this assertion. * * * Allowing to the utmost for these tendencies to confide


too much in additional means of safety, the risk is proved by experience to be very much greater without them than with them; and, in fact, the negligence and mistakes of servants are found to occur most frequently, and generally with the most serious results, not when the men are over-confident in their appliances or apparatus, but when, in the absence of them, they are habituated to risk in the conduct of the traffic. In the daily practice of railway working station-masters, porters, signalmen, engine-drivers or guards are frequently placed in difficulties which they have to surmount as best they can. The more they are accustomed to incur risk in order to perform their duties, the less they think of it, and the more difficult it is to enforce discipline and obedience to regulations. The personal risk which is encountered by certain classes of railway servants is coming to be more precisely ascertained. It is very considerable; and it is difficult to prevent men who are in constant danger themselves from doing things which may be a source of danger to others, or to compel them to obey regulations for which they do not see altogether the necessity, and which impede them in their work. This difficulty increases with the want of necessary means and appliances; and is diminished when, with proper means and appliances, stricter discipline becomes possible, safer modes of working become habitual, and a higher margin of safety is constantly preserved.*

In Great Britain the ingenious theory that superior appliances or greater personal comfort in some indefinable way lead to carelessness in employees was carried to such an extent that only within the last few years has any protection against wind, rain and sunshine been furnished on locomotives for the engine-drivers and stokers. The old stage-coach

* Reports; 1872, page 23, and 1873, page 39.


driver faced the elements, and why should not his successor on the locomotive do the same?—If made too comfortable, he would become careless and go to sleep!—This was the line of argument advanced, and the tortures to which the wretched men were subjected in consequence of it led to their fortifying nature by drink. They had to be regularly inspected and examined before mounting the footboard, to see that they were sober. It took years in Great Britain for intelligent railroad managers to learn that the more protected and comfortable a man is the better he will attend to his duty. And even when the old argument, refuted by long experience, was at last abandoned as respected the locomotive cab, it, with perfect freshness and confidence in its own novelty and force, promptly showed its brutal visage in opposition to the next new safeguard.

For the reasons which Captain Tyler has so forcibly put in the extracts which have just been quoted, the argument against the block system from the increased carelessness of employees, supposed to be induced by it, is entitled to no weight. Neither is the argument from the delicacy and complication of the automatic, electric signal system entitled to any more, when urged against that. Not only has it been too often refuted under similar conditions by practical results, but in this case it is based on certain assumptions of fact which are wholly opposed to experience. The record does not show that there is any 


peculiar liability to railroad accidents during periods of storm; perhaps because those in charge of train movements or persons crossing tracks are under such circumstances more especially on the look out for danger. On the contrary the full average of accidents of the worst description appear to have occurred under the most ordinary conditions of weather, and usually in the most unanticipated way. This is peculiarly true of accidents at highway grade crossings. These commonly occur when the conditions are such as to cause the highway travelers to suppose that, if any danger existed, they could not but be aware of it. In the next place, the question in regard to automatic electric signals is exactly what it was in regard to the Westinghouse brake, with its

air-pump, its valves and connecting tubes;—it is the purely practical question,—Does the thing work?—The burden of proof is properly on the inventor. The presumption is all against him. In the case of the electric signals they have for years been in limited but constant use, and while thus in use they have been undergoing steady improvement. Though now brought to a considerable degree of comparative perfection they are, of course, still in their earlier stage of development. In use, however, they have not been found open to the practical objections urged against them. At first much too complicated and expensive, requiring more machinery than could by any reasonable exertions be kept


in order and more care than they were worth, they have now been simplified until a single battery properly located can do all the necessary work for a road of indefinite length. As a system they are effective and do not lead to accidents; nor are they any more subject than telegraph wires to derangement from atmospheric causes. When any disturbance does take place, until it can be overcome it amounts simply to a general signal for operating the road with extreme caution. But with railroads, as everywhere else in life, it is the normal condition of affairs for which provision must be made, while the dangers incident to exceptional circumstances must be met by exceptional precautions. As long as things are in their normal state, that is, probably, during nineteen days out of twenty, the electric signals have now through several years of constant trial proved themselves a reliable safeguard. It can hardly admit of doubt that in the near future they will be both further perfected and generally adopted.

Table of Contents | Contents Page

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery