‘Safety First?’ by Fullstroke from International Socialist Review. Vol. 16 No. 3. September, 1915.
SAFETY FIRST. It is under cover of these magic words that the modern railroad manager, can and does, pull off any stunt in the interest of dividends, utterly regardless of any reference to safety.
The “safety first” movement was born at the time when it dawned upon railroad profit seekers, that by throwing safety into the scrap pile profits could be made to grow ever more high, even after deducting the occasional expense occasioned by the inevitable wrecks. Then, of course, there was the claim agent and lawyer always ready to reduce even these claims to the lowest limit. “Safety first” became a wonderful asset and has been used to the very limit as a cloak, and it must be said with success.
Hanging beside every round house register is a small painted tin box containing blank “safety first” cards. Any employee on noticing a defective spot anywhere along the line, is supposed to report it on one of these blanks. Once a month a “safety first” committee, composed of lesser R. R. officials, meets and goes over these cards. Every card is considered, that is, every card that gets before this committee. If some practice of the railroad that is very profitable, or that would require some expense to remedy, should be reported on one of these cards, of course it is side-tracked and the committee never has a chance to consider it.
It was in 1898 that one of the American railroads, by using a locomotive with 200,000 pounds of driving wheels, loading the engine to the very limit of its pulling capacity, ran the train revenue up to $568.00 per hundred miles. Such an engine was about double the capacity for hauling, of average freight service of the time, and this feat of labor displacement opened the eyes of railroad managers to the possibility of hauling the entire equipment over the road in one train. The reduction in number of train hands, of course, was in inverse ratio to the train mile revenue. Immediately the weight of the locomotive began to mount faster than ever before. From the modest 200,000 pounds of the drivers, it went up rapidly to 250,000 and is now approaching the 300,000 pound mark for just the ordinary hog type of engine.
Special types for mountain service are far in excess of even this weight. Then the introduction of superheated steam added another 15 per cent to the power for any given weight on driving wheels. The number of cars hauled in a single train went from 40 to 125 and even more, while the tonnage went like a sky rocket to five, six and as high as eight thousand tons. All these things occurred in the short time of half a decade with the process still on the ascent.
Now right here was introduced the greatest menace to railroad safety that has yet appeared in train operation. A train of 125 freight cars is almost exactly one mile in length, and the tonnage of such a train will average between 5,000 and 6,000 tons. The stored-up energy of such a train traveling at an ordinary freight train speed is enough to raise a first class battleship out of the water. A large portion of these mile long caravans of junk are still carried on cast iron wheels, which are notorious for being unreliable. In fact there is not a single day in cold weather but many of these cast iron wheels go to pieces, right out on the road, in both slow and fast freight service, as though they were made of cheese. Brake beams are hung in any off hand manner that can be devised, the only specification ever considered being the lowest possible first cost. In order that this mile of cars shall be the standard, on the roads with considerable grade, two and even three engines are regularly used, the pulling power of which exceeds the strength of drawbars. This results in frequent pulling of the drawpars and rigging while the train is at full speed, dumping about a ton of iron under the moving cars. Also it may be remembered that this is only a part of a long list of common events that may at any moment cause a derailment anywhere along the mile or more of tonnage.
It is not always on level land nor in bright daylight when these trains are moving. Over the longest bridges spanning the resistless flood, through the hardest storm and darkest night, these trains followed one after another. Nor are the long freights the only trains on the road. At the same time on the two, three and four track systems are traveling hundreds of passenger trains loaded with thousands of passengers, going both in the same and opposite directions. This passenger train also has doubled in weight, length and capacity for carrying passengers. It is to the passenger that the greatest menace comes from freight trains operated in long units. So imminent and always present is this danger, and so disastrous when it comes, that simply to look at a fast passenger train passing over one of these travelling miles of scrap is enough to make one hold his breath. For it is when, from any cause, a derailment occurs in the mile long freight train that the standing menace to all travel becomes apparent.
When a derailment comes at the forward half of the train the many thousand tons in the line behind keep right on coming. One loaded car piles on top of another and even this does not stop the oncoming tidal wave of destruction. Up and up they go with now and then some going sideways until a veritable pyramid of wreckage is the result. Two hundred feet wide and eight to ten cars high stands this pyramid when the caravan slackens up. All tracks are instantly blocked without stopping the oncoming cars from crashing and tumbling in every direction. Loaded coal cars, built of the latest design are telescoped up like an accordion. Loaded box cars of the strongest type are so thoroughly demolished that their numbers can only be found in the conductor’s book or yard records. Rails are broken and bent in fantastic shapes as though powerful forges and hammers had been at work for weeks and new ties are literally ground up into pulp in the dirt. All this destruction of cars and engines is of small account. The workers will in the shortest possible time, have all this damage repaired. But so great is the profit from this method of handling traffic, that is, so great is the labor displacement, that the only thing the management does is to place a new flood of “SAFETY FIRST” signs. After each disaster of this kind up go the signs, on every telegraph pole, on every board of the fence and is a new decorative design on the railroad advertising matter. This is simply poured into the public ear and there being nothing else in the head of this great public, it rapidly fills to the exclusion of the former vacuum; a sort of cheap filler to a scab cigar, as it were.
What is going to be the result when one of these wreck start changing the aspect of the landscape right on the next track to a faster passenger train making schedule time. In the short time these long trains have been operated there have been many close calls. Times almost without number, such wrecks have happened either just ahead or just after the passing of the fastest passenger trains. The time is ever drawing nearer when one of them is going to get caught. Not only get caught, but get buried out of sight in the wreckage. Be it remembered, there is no suspension of traffic when legislators and even the President of the United States are travelling. it is not pleasant to forecast so appalling a thing as this must be when it comes. And there is not an experienced railroad man who is not continually speaking of it. They are powerless to prevent it now, but they know what is coming. They know it menaces their lives every moment they are at work.
How does the slogan “SAFETY FIRST” effect train operation of a nature that may bury an entire passenger train under wreckage at any moment? Is that the question you want answered? Well, it has no effect that you would notice. Should a nail be found sticking out from a clapboard ten feet up from the ground, or a piece of glass be found lying somewhere in the sun, the most neglectful railroad company will go after it with a brass band if reported on a “safety first” card. But after one of these wrecks, a two horse load of cards sent in, would not even cause a ripple. Plans for real safety would never be placed before the “safety first” committee.
When the inevitable does come let it be remembered that the cry of “safety first” came at the time this greatest menace to safety became a regular railroad practice. It should have read, “DIVIDENDS FIRST,” and have been so inscribed on· the banner of every railroad in the land. It is the greatest asset in the gentle art of profit in taking chances. The basic conditions that brought it into being are now in full swing. The remedy will be applied when those who spend their lives running the railroads can say how these should be run. Then and then only will the railroad workers have safe working conditions and railroad passengers a chance to travel in safety.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v16n03-sep-1915-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf