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230 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

CHAPTER XXI.

THE RAILROAD JOURNEY RESULTING IN DEATH.

ONE day in May, 1847, as the Queen of Belgium was going from Verviers to Brussels by rail, the train in which she was journeying came into collision with another train going in the opposite direction. There was naturally something of a panic, and, as royalty was not then accustomed to being knocked about with railroad equality, some of her suite urged the queen to leave the train and to finish her journey by carriage. The contemporaneous court reporter then went on to say, in that language which is so peculiarly his own,—" But her Majesty, as courageously as discreetly, declined to set that example of timidity, and she proceeded to Brussels by the railway." In those days a very exaggerated idea was universally entertained of the great danger incident to travel by rail. Even then, however, had her Majesty, who was doubtless a very sensible woman, happened to be familiar with the

THE DAYS OF STAGE COACHES 231

statistics of injuries received by those traveling respectively by rail and by carriage, she certainly never on any plea of danger would have been induced to abandon her railroad train in order to trust herself behind horse-flesh. By pursuing the course urged upon her, the queen would have multiplied her chances of accident some sixty fold. Strange as the statement sounds even now, such would seem to have been the fact. In proportion to the whole number carried, the accidents to passengers in "the good old days of stage-coaches" were, as compared to the present time of the railroad dispensation, about as sixty to one. This result, it is true, cannot be verified in the experience either of England or of this country, for neither the English nor we possess any statistics in relation to the earlier period; but they have such statistics in France, stretching over the space of more than forty years, and as reliable as statistics ever are. If these French statistics hold true in New England,—and considering the character of our roads, conveyances, and climate, their showing is more likely to be in our favor than against us,—if they simply hold true, leaving us to assume that stage-coach traveling was no less safe in Massachusetts than in France, then it would follow that to make the dangers of the rail of the present day equal to those of the highway of half a century back, some eighty passengers should annually be killed and some eleven hundred injured within the limits of Massachusetts alone. These

232 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

figures, however, represent rather more than fifty times the actual average, and from them it would seem to be not unfair to conclude that, notwithstanding the great increase of population and the yet greater increase in travel during the last half-century, there were literally more persons killed and injured each year in Massachusetts fifty years ago through accidents to stage-coaches than there are now through accidents to railroad trains.

The first impression of nine out of ten persons in no way connected with the operations of railroads would probably be found to be the exact opposite to this. A vague but deeply rooted conviction commonly prevails that the railroad has created a new danger; that because of it the average human being's hold on life is more precarious than it was. The first point-blank, bald statement to the contrary would accordingly strike people in the light not only of a paradox, but of a somewhat foolish one. Investigation, nevertheless, bears it out. The fact is that when a railroad accident comes, it is apt to come in such a way as to leave no doubt whatever in relation to it. It is heralded like a battle or an earthquake; it fills columns of the daily press with the largest capitals and the most harrowing details, and thus it makes a deep and lasting impression on the minds of many people. When a multitude of persons, traveling as almost every man now daily travels himself, meet death in such sudden and such awful shape, the event smites the imagination.

ACCIDENTS THEN AND NOW. 233

People seeing it and thinking of it, and hearing and reading of it, and of it only, forget of how infrequent occurrence it is. It was not so in the olden time. Every one rode behind horses,—if not in public then in private conveyances,—and when disaster came it involved but few persons and was rarely accompanied by circumstances which either struck the imagination or attracted any great public notice. In the first place, the modern newspaper, with its perfect machinery for sensational exaggeration, did not then exist,—having itself only recently come in the train of the locomotive;—and, in the next place, the circle of those included in the consequences of any disaster was necessarily small. It is far otherwise now. For weeks and months the vast machinery moves along, doing its work quickly, swiftly, safely; no one pays any attention to it, while millions daily make use of it. It is as much a necessity of their lives as the food they eat and the air they breathe. Suddenly, somehow, and somewhere,—at Versailles, at Norwalk, at Abergele, at New Hamburg, or at Revere,—at some hitherto unfamiliar point upon an insignificant thread of the intricate iron web, an obstruction is encountered, a jar, as it were, is felt, and instantly, with time for hardly an ejaculation or a thought, a multitude of human beings are hurled into eternity. It is no cause for surprise that such an event makes the community in which it happens catch its breadth; neither is it unnatural that people should think more of the few who are killed, of

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whom they hear so much, than of the myriad who are carried in safety and of whom they hear nothing. Yet it is well to bear in mind that there are two sides to that question also, and in no way could this fact be more forcibly brought to our notice than by the assertion, borne out by all the statistics we possess, that, irrespective of the vast increase in the number of those who travel, a greater number of passengers in stagecoaches were formerly each year killed or injured by accidents to which they in no way contributed through their own carelessness, than are now killed under the same conditions in our railroad cars. In other words, the introduction of the modern railroad, so far from proportionately increasing the dangers of traveling, has absolutely diminished them. It is not, after all, the dangers but the safety of the modern railroad which should excite our special wonder.

What is the average length of the railroad journey resulting in death by accident to a prudent traveler?—What is the average length of one resulting in some personal injury to him?—These are two questions which interest every one. Few persons, probably, start upon any considerable journey, implying days and nights on the rail, without almost unconsciously taking into some consideration the risks of accident. Visions of collision, derailment, plunging through bridges, will rise unbidden. Even the old traveler who has enjoyed a long immunity is apt at times, with some little apprehension,

AFFECTATION IN STATISTICS. 235

to call to mind the musty adage of the pitcher and the well, and to ask himself how much longer it will be safe for him to rely on his good luck. A hundred thousand miles, perhaps, and no accident yet!—Surely, on every doctrine of chances, he now owes to fate an arm or a leg;—perhaps a life. The statistics of a long series of years enable us, however, to approximate with a tolerable degree of precision to an answer to these questions, and the answer is simply astounding;—so astounding, in fact, that, before undertaking to give it, the question itself ought to be stated with all possible precision. It is this:—Taking all persons who as passengers travel by rail,—and this includes all dwellers in civilized countries,—what number of journeys of the average length are safely accomplished, to each one which results in the death or injury of a passenger from some cause over which he had no control?—The cases of death or injury must be confined to passengers, and to those of them only who expose themselves to no unnecessary risk.

When approaching a question of this sort, statisticians are apt to assume for their answers an appearance of mathematical accuracy. It is needless to say that this is a mere affectation. The best results which can be arrived at are, after all, mere approximations, and they also vary greatly year by year. The body of facts from which conclusions are to be deduced must cover not only a definite area

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of space, but also a considerable lapse of time. Even Great Britain, with its 17,000 miles of track and its hundreds of millions of annual passenger journeys, shows results which, one year with another, vary strangely. For instance, during the four years anterior to 1874, but one passenger was killed, upon an average, to each 11,000,000 carried; while in 1874 the proportion, under the influence of a succession of disasters, suddenly doubled, rising to one in every 5,500,000, and then again in 1877, a year of peculiar exemption, it fell off to one in every 50,000,000. The percentage of fatal casualties to the whole number carried was in 1847-9 five fold what it was in 1878. If such fluctuations reveal themselves in the statistics of Great Britain, those met with in the narrower field of a single state in this country might well seem at first glance to set all computation at defiance. During the ten years, for example, between 1861 and 1870, about 200,000,000 passengers were returned as carried on the Massachusetts roads, with 135 cases of injury to individuals. Then came the year of the Revere disaster, and out of 26,000,000 carried, no less than 115 were killed or injured. Seven years of comparative immunity then ensued, during which, out of 240,000,000 carried, but two were killed and forty-five injured. In other words, through a period of ten years the casualties were approximately as one to 1,500,000; then during a single year they rose to one in 250,000, or a seven-fold increase; and then

THE NORMAL AVERAGE. 237

through a period of seven years they diminished to one in 3,400,000 a decrease of about ninety per cent.

Taking, however, the very worst of years,—the year of the Revere disaster, which stands unparalleled in the history of Massachusetts,—it will yet be found that the answer to the question as to the length of the average railroad journey resulting in death or in injury will be expressed, not in thousands nor in hundreds of thousands of miles, but in millions. During that year some 26,000,000 passenger journeys were made within the limits of the state, and each journey averaged a distance of about 13 miles. It would seem, therefore, that, even in that year, the average journey resulting in death was 11,000,000 miles, while that resulting either in death or personal injury was not less than 3,300,000.

The year 1871, however, represented by no means a fair average. On the contrary, it indicated what may fairly be considered an excessive degree of danger, exciting nervous apprehensions in the breasts of those even who were not constitutionally timid. To reach what may be considered a normal average, therefore, it would be more proper to include a longer period in the computation. Take, for instance, the nine years, 1871-79, during which alone has any effort been made to reach statistical accuracy in respect to Massachusetts railroad accidents. During those nine years, speaking

238 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

in round numbers and making no pretence at anything beyond a general approximation, some 303,000,000 passenger journeys of 13 miles each have been made on the railroads and within the state. Of these 51 have resulted in death and 308 in injuries to persons from causes over which they had no control. The average distance, therefore, traveled by all, before death happened to any one, was about 80,000,000 miles, and that travelled before any one was either injured or killed was about 10,800,000.

The Revere disaster of 1871, however, as has been seen, brought about important changes in-the methods of operating the railroads of Massachusetts. Consequently the danger incident to railroad traveling was materially reduced; and in the next eight years (1872-9) some 274,000,000 passenger journeys were made within the limits of the state. The Wollaston disaster of October, 1878, was included in this period, during which 223 persons were injured and 21 were killed. The average journey for these years resulting in any injury to a passenger was close upon 15,000,000 miles, while that resulting in death was 170,000,000.

But it may fairly be asked,—What, after all, do these figures mean?—They are, indeed, so large as to exceed comprehension; for, after certain comparatively narrow limits are passed the practical infinite is approached, and the mere adding of a few more ciphers after a numeral conveys no new idea. On

WHAT THE STATISTICS MEAN. 239

the contrary, the piling up of figures rather tends to weaken than to strengthen a statement, for to many it suggests an idea of ridiculous exaggeration. Indeed, when a few years ago a somewhat similar statement to that just made was advanced in an official report, a critic undertook to expose the fallacy of it in the columns of a daily paper by referring to a case within the writer's own observation in which a family of three persons had been killed on their very first journey in a railroad car. It is not, of course, necessary to waste time over such a criticism as this. Railroad accidents continually take place, and in consequence of them people are killed and injured, and of these there may well be some who are then making their first journey by rail; but in estimating the dangers of railroad traveling the much larger number who are not killed or injured at all must likewise be taken into consideration. Any person as he may be reading this page in a railroad car may be killed or injured through some accident, even while his eye is glancing over the figures which show how infinitesimal his danger is; but the chances are none the less as a million to one that any particular reader will go down to his grave uninjured by any accident on the rail, unless it be occasioned by his or her own carelessness.

Admitting, therefore, that ill luck or hard fortune must fall to the lot of certain unascertainable persons, yet the chances of incurring that ill fortune are so small that they are not materially increased

 

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by any amount of traveling which can be accomplished within the limits of a human life. So far from exhausting a fair average immunity from accident by constant traveling, the statistics of Massachusetts during the last eight years would seem to indicate that if any given person were born upon a railroad car, and remained upon it traveling 500 miles a day all his life, he would, with average good fortune, be somewhat over 80 years of age before he would be involved in any accident resulting in his death or personal injury, while he would attain the highly respectable age of 930 years before being killed. Even supposing that the most exceptional average of the Revere year became usual, a man who was killed by an accident at 70 years of age should, unless he were fairly to be accounted unlucky, have accomplished a journey of some 440 miles every day of his life, Sundays included, from the time of his birth to that of his death; while even to have brought him within the fair liability of any injury at all, his daily journey should have been some 120 miles. Under the conditions of the last eight years his average daily journey through the three score years and ten to entitle him to be killed in an accident at the end of them would be about 600 miles.


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