Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965

By Esbester, Mike | The Journal of Transport History, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965


Esbester, Mike, The Journal of Transport History


Mark Aldrich, Death rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD (2006), 446 pp., US$59.95.

Given current concern about transport safety, it is perhaps surprising that the subject has received relatively little historical study. Indeed, Aldrich's monograph is the first comprehensive treatment devoted to the history of American railway safety. It is therefore a welcome start in bridging the significant gap in transport historiography, especially given its admirable level of research and analysis.

Aldrich is an economic historian, but to define Death rode the Rails simply as economic history would be misleading. A variety of economic, technological, political and legal factors are integrated in a convincingly argued and well written analysis of the evolution of American railway safety over a broad period. The range of people considered is wide, covering not just passengers and workers but also 'illicit' users such as trespassers or hobos. The scope of topics explored is similarly diverse, including derailments, collisions, bridge failures and medical organisations. Those familiar with Aldrich's other work (notably Safety First, 1997) will find sections of this book have been published elsewhere, yet, with revised and new material (particularly the inclusion of passenger safety), the project makes a fresh contribution to the field.

There are several veins of argument running chronologically throughout the study. Market forces are central, whether encouraging or hindering safety. Significantly, Aldrich relates safety to productivity and cost. As might be expected, safety investments were largely made by railway companies (not always rational actors) where they could expect financial return. Yet Aldrich is also clear that safety and productivity were often proportionately related - improvements in safety often led to improvements in efficiency. He contends that changes in technology (such as brakes or steel rails) did not simply improve safety, but instead some of the benefit was absorbed by increased productivity (for example, by allowing heavier or faster trains). In Aldrich's view, market forces ensured that the railway system which evolved during the nineteenth century was specifically American and peculiarly dangerous - a product of scarce labour, cheap natural resources and light construction, and limited state regulation.

One of the successes of this work is the treatment of the railway as a system - not only examining safety aspects of the stock or infrastructure, but incorporating the organisation of work, labour markets, and both internal and external sources of change. …

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