An American View of British Railways


An American View of British Railways


An American View of British Railways


The writer, after comparing British with American railroads, comes to the conclusion that each country has provided itself with the system that, broadly speaking, answers its own needs best. The portion, reprint d here, takes up the characteristics of the British system from the standpoint of the casual traveler.

IF I were asked to name the characteristics which, from the standpoint of the casual traveler, make British railways most unlike American railways, I should reply unhesitatingly, hedges, and the Board of Trade. Each of these terms is somewhat symbolic, as used. The hedges, perfectly trimmed and laid out like the boundaries of a model garden, suggest the neatness and careful exactitude that pervade the service. They may fairly be made to stand for the politeness of the employees, the “railway .servants,” as well: for one does not expect to find rude servants in an old-fashioned garden. The traveler does not see the Board of Trade, but he is surrounded on all sides by its handiwork, and watched over by its inspectors. Specifically, the Board of Trade as a British railway characteristic stands for the broad masonry station platforms, the overhead bridges from the up-line to the downline, the absence of grade crossings, the efficient system of block signaling, and the careful inspection and report that follow’ even the most insignificant accident. More broadly, it denotes the great British Public Opinion, that may be inefficient, but is always honest and courageous, and carries an influence—whether it expresses itself in the shareholders’ meeting or in the columns of the Times—which has no parallel in this country. Nor does public opinion, or public serious-mindedness, stop

with the proprietors and the critics; the humblest railway guard ^ feels his responsibilities, and respects the traditions of law and order to an extent that is simply astonishing. He may he stupid; he usually is; but his fidelity to the hook of rules and to his own small but essential share in railway working seems to belong to a different race of individuals from the American trainman, wfitli alertness and carelessness well mingled in his make-up.

The Board of Trade is a branch of the government, and its railway department is concerned almost solely with public safety. It views public safety broadly; it will not permit any new line to be opened for traffic until its inspectors have passed on it; and the inspectors require compliance with almost countless arbitrary requirements that entail a tremendous expense on the railway company, and have, in considerable part, no real hearing on safety. Many of these requirements are traditional rather than expedient; if railways were to he built de novo in the year 1906 it is certain that the Board of Trade would be immensely shocked, if not insulted, at the suggestion that a 100-ton locomotive should rely on wheel flanges less than one and a half inches deep to keep it on the rails, at a speed of seventy miles an hour. But the traveler who is not a shareholder has no occasion to worry over excessive safety, and he can feel assured that every Brit-

isk railway on which he is permitted to travel has passed a rigid examination at the hands of one of the most critical examining bodies in the world.

The Railway Department of the Board of Trade has four principal inspectors, who are retired army officers—at present three lieutenantcolonels and a major. These gentlemen naturally had no railway experience prior to their appointment ; in fact, the very circumstance of their army career indicates the impersonal, non-partisan service which is expected of them. Without technical skill, except that which they have acquired in the prosecution of their duties, they stand for dignity and absolute integrity, as representatives of the government. One inspector personally investigates every accident, every new line which it is proposed to open for traffic, every installation of a new type of signal, and the like, and receives testimony much like a circuit judge, except that the proceedings are informal. In due co,urse of time he presents his report, quoting the important testimony, and adding conclusions and recommendations of his own which have practically the force of statute, because of the power possessed by the Board to require compliance on the part of the companies. The reasons gravely alleged by the Board as the cause of a wreck -often fail to convince ; the remedies suggested may do nothing more than reiterate the need of care in trainworking; but the limelight is turned squarely on all the operating methods and physical conditions contributory to the accident, and any real evils that may be discovered are dealt with in no uncertain manner.

For example, at the famous Hall Road accident, on the electrified portion of the Lancashire and __ Yorkshire, the whole system of facingpoint switches throughout the country was under trial, although the primary cause of the accident was an order to proceed, wrongly given, by a signalman. The country was aroused by the accident ; but the Board of Trade went about its investigation without haste or hysteria, and laid the entire blame where it belonged—on the mental confusion of the signalman. The American press as a whole can be relied on always to assume, tacitly or sonorously, that a serious railroad accident is due to “corporate greed,” implying that if the shareholders cared to spend what they should, they could bring about a condition of perfection that would make accidents unheard of. The British press does not share this attitude of mind, because it places perfect confidence in its Board of Trade. When the inspectors of the Hall Road disaster fully exonerated the facing-point switch from the charge that it was accessory to accidents in general, the press had no more to say on this point. It is easy to imagine the heroic stand which our sensational papers would have taken in such a discussion. They )Would have formed their own conclusion months before the Board of Trade hearings were finished, exonerating the poor signalman—and incidentally publishing his portrait— placing all the blame on the directors, and appealing to high Heaven and President Roosevelt for a law requiring the abolition of facingpoint switches.

The British observer is naturally surprised to see that our safety

measures are enforced primarily by ¡the newspapers; he is scandalized to learn that the cause of some of our worst accidents is never known, and hence that preventive measures do not follow. For example, the Mento wreck, on the Lake Shore, is still unexplained, after incomplete and unscientific examinations made ,by coroners’ juries and the inefficient State Railroad Commission. Two things, however, have always worked to hinder really useful work by any national railroad commission in this country: the separate state government system, and the fact that internal communications played so vital a part in the development and in the prosperity of the land that public opinion, at the outset, was not at all critical. What was wanted ,was railroads; if they could be safe railroads, so much the better; but filiis was not the essential thing. The early lines across the plains, with all their crudities, were so infinitely superior to pack trains, both in efficiency and in safety, that their shortcomings were not judged harshly. Now we have awakened to the fact that a preventable accident is a criminal thing, and we hold our railroads in low esteem because they cannot at once alter their physical structure to conform to our point of view. It is fair to say, however, that we very greatly need an institution with inspection powers like those of the British Board of Trade, but with expense ideas tempered to the wide difference in situation.

To revert from the Board of Trade to the hedge characteristic of British lines: the baggage system, plus the cab arrangements, never fails to delight an American. He never knows, and never can be made

to know, what there is in the system that offers the slightest hindrance to the professional collector of other people’s baggage; he is fully convinced that the porter would place on his hansom any bag he designated as his own, without a moment’s hesitation. In a country where checks are not used in ordinary baggage handling, the entire system rests on the simple affirmation, “This is my bag.” Yet the claim departments of British railway*» find that theft of baggage from station platforms is practically a negligible item in their accounting. From the standpoint of the ordinary traveler, the British method is incomparably superior to ours. A four-wheeler in London costs a shilling for the first two miles. Add a few odd pence for each piece of baggage carried outside, and construe the distance liberally, and you may arrive at the station, with all your paraphernalia, for a ridiculously small sum. English visitors to New York habitually dine jn tweeds on the night of their arrival, because the expressman, who lightly guarantees immediate delivery of their belongings, finds it more convenient to call the following morning.

The Englishman travel's with two kit-bags, a hat-box, an ulster, and a rug, and never cames any of these filings himself. He marvels at the hidden resources of the American dress-suit case, not understanding the stern necessity that requires us to provide apparel for the day in such form that we can manage it without relying on the porter or the expressman. It has always seemed to me that the polite porters who swarm about English railway stations were, in the last analysis, re-

¡sponsible for the abominable coldness of the trains; for without the porter’s assistance the traveler could not manage his ulster and his rug, and would be unable to regard a railway journey as akin to a drive in .an open carriage. Our trains are .overheated, and we remove superfluous outer garments when we travel; English trains are really not heated at all, and the traveler must dress ¿lis he would dress on board ship.

Taking into consideration all the differences, great and small, it is hard to say with conviction that the railway system of either country offers any marked advantage over the other in the comfort it affords the traveler. England is a land of short distances; and, speaking of the lines as a whole, they subordinate their freight business to their passenger business. In this country we unhesitatingly subordinate the passenger traffic. As a result, the English ,sendee offers many more short-distance trains, which run with infinitely greater punctuality. But the long-distance traffic—that is to say, the service between England and Scotland—lacks many comfort-giving features to which we are accustomed. The traveler in the fall and winter months is likely to be chiefly concerned by the coldness of the trains, mentioned above. He is also expected to remain in one place throughout the journey; there is no library car at the front of the train, po observation smoker at the rear, fn recent years an excellent dining car service has been maintained on the best trains; but dining cars are still somewhat of a specialty, rather than an essential feature of a through train. As an alternative there is the basket lunch—a cold

chicken, lettuce salad, bread, butter, and cheese, designed to be eaten from the lap. Personally, I am inclined to think that an American dining car affords more nourishment and considerably more variety than does a basket lunch; but this is a moot point. The dining car at least gives the traveler a chance to move .about, and to substitute oak and rattan for plush. The English diningcar, when found, is so thoroughly satisfactory that it may rest exempt from the criticism of a reasonably philosophic traveler. v The same is true of the British sleeping car, which, like the diner, is a recent development, but is now always to be found on the Scotch, night expresses. Each passenger has a narrow compartment to hinir self; there are no upper berths, and there is an individual washstand in the compartment. If the journey begins at bed-time and end's at getting-up time, the traveler will be thoroughly comfortable; but if he is bound to a point not reached by his rising hour—Aberdeen, for example — he must needs make up his own ,berth and remain in his compartment; the cars are not convertible into day coaches, and he must be content with a basket breakfast, likewise eaten from the berth.

The upshot of a comparison between English and American railways is that each country has provided itself with the system that, broadly considered, answers its own peeds the best, and that, when all circumstances are taken into account, neither has much to learn (from the other. Certain great defects stand out in each; English railway financing and American railway carelessness are both deserv-

ing of censure. Yet these defects are quite explainable in their outgrowth from the physical conditions ,at hand, and they are not amenable to any off-hand remedy. Likewise, certain points of especial attractiveness, such as the English baggage ,system and the punctuality of trains, and the American luxury of through travel, have arisen from a complicated set of local circumstances, and

could not be transplanted unless all fhe circumstances were transplanted fs well. Most forcible of all is the impression gained by such a study .that the essential belief, the very creed and doctrine of one country, as regards the economics of its railway working, may not be so much as discussed in another, where the same ultimate problem is gotten at in a wholly different way.