By James Southworth
Today, the railroad industry marks a 197th anniversary. On July 25, 1814, English engineer George Stephenson demonstrated the first steam locomotive. Stephenson did not invent the steam engine, but he developed the technology to move steam engines from hauling coalmining carts to powering the first form of commercial rapid transportation. Previously, the horse-drawn carriage was the fastest means of land travel. Now, two centuries later, railroads are essential to our lives.
Stephenson may have revolutionized land travel, but he also unwittingly introduced a new kind of transportation danger. On the maiden voyage of Stephenson’s rail line from Liverpool to Manchester, a Member of Parliament and one of several dignitaries on the train, William Huskisson, climbed onto the tracks to talk with the Prime Minister during a refueling stop. Another train pulling into the station on the same rail struck Huskisson. It may seem incredible today, but those early locomotives had no brakes. Stephenson unhooked the passenger cars from one of his trains and personally rushed Huskisson to medical attention. Without the extra weight of the passenger cars, the unburdened train was able to reach an astonishing 40 mph, then a world speed record. Unfortunately, that speed was not enough to save Huskisson, who later died of his injuries.
The Huskisson accident was the first of many. As Chairman Hersman pointed out in a speech at the U.S. railroad industry’s annual Harriman Awards, by the early 20th century, 48 percent of all deaths in the United States happened on railroads. At the turn of that century, lack of safety was an accepted cost of innovation. Today, safety is a goal of innovation. Railroads are investing in new safety technologies, such as positive train control, which gathers data about the positions of trains relative to each other, and automatically stops a train if another train is approaching on the same rail. What is good is that there are many 21st century innovators like George Stephenson, who are working to make trains better and safer.
James Southworth is the Railroad Division Chief in NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations.