The Odds Are On the Train

An Engine Driver tells his side of the Level Crossing Suicide Club Story

F. E. DAVEY December 1 1927

The Odds Are On the Train

An Engine Driver tells his side of the Level Crossing Suicide Club Story

F. E. DAVEY December 1 1927

The Odds Are On the Train

An Engine Driver tells his side of the Level Crossing Suicide Club Story


THE International Limited was thundering through the night. Ahead, the roadbed stretched far away, steel rails glittering in the white glare of the headlight. It was not the roadbed that I knew, level and neat in its ballast of crushed rock; but an illusion of a swirling mass of grays and blacks that seemed to rush towards us in a terrifying whirl. Only in the distance did it take definite form.

On the right of the cab, leaning out of the window, was the engineer, hand on the throttle and hand on brake, guiding a giant of pulsating power through the darkness. The mass of steel and fire he operated responded to his touch like the living thing that it was. We seemed to be caught up in a vortex of speed.

Suddenly the cab was suffused in a wave of heat and fire. The fireman had stepped upon a lever that threw open the firebox door and, to me, the heat from that inferno, No. 6100’s vitals, was almost overpowering in its intensity. The fireman grinned good-naturedly, as I involuntarily stepped back and shielded my face with an arm.

“Just wanted to see how she’s doing,” he explained, resuming his seat on the left side of the cab, hand upon the automatic stoker valve guiding the spread and flow of coal that gave No.

6100 life.

I stepped forward and stood close to the engineer. He was tense as any runner crouched at the starting line of a race, every muscle taut, every nerve strung to the breaking point. Veins in the arm that reached up to the throttle stood out in blue relief; the knuckles of the hand that grasped it were four spots of white. Though I could not see it, I could visualize that tense grip on the handle of the airbrake in front of him. It was a picture of the runner incarnate.

A break came in the course of the track ahead of us, as it curved gracefully about the base of an uprising hill. The hand pushed the throttle gently and there came a gasp of escaping air as brakes were skillfully applied.

The swirling road again took form and No. 6100 swung around the curve without a jar. For a split second, the far reach of the headlight swept a wide pasture, the frost-whitened grass glistening in its rays, and touching with glittering finger drowsing trees that fringed its edge. A dark outline floated close to the ground, suspended, it seemed, in an aerial void; then it fluttered awkwardly in the sudden brilliance and turned to flee beyond the blinding arc. A great horned owl had been about to strike but

the flash of the locomotive headlight had saved its victim.

The engineer gave no sign that he had seen the averted tragedy of the meadows; it is doubtful if he saw it at all. His eyes, his mind, his entire consciousness were concentrated on the right of way.

The curve, a mile or more in length, was quickly passed, and then the twin rails stretched straight away again. Slowly the throttle was drawn inward—forty-five, fifty,

fifty-five, sixty miles an hour! Once more came the illusion of the swirling roadbed as the International Limited hurled itself furiously into the maw of the night.

Far off to the right in front of us—but then distance is deceiving to an amateur riding in the cab of a locomotive —two spots of light twinkled out of nowhere. The engineer reached upward, pulled a lever, and to the roar of the train was added a sudden ominous booming note. The sound sent a shiver of apprehension through me for I realized that in those two lights the engineer saw the beginnings of horror. Once more his fingers flashed upward and the cab was riven by the wild, drawn-out shriek of the whistle, deafening, nerve-shattering in its intensity.

So rigid was the engineer now that he might have been carved in stone. A second later his arm as if propelled by a tight-coiled steel spring, flashed over to the emergency lever. I reeled to the shock that followed and was thrown violently against the side of the cab. It seemed as if the giant of steel and fire was struggling desperately to fling off mammoth arms that held it in leash.

What I saw as I regained my feet made me clutch the edge of the driver’s seat in a very agony of fear. Not twenty feet away a hurtling form leaped into the blinding arc of our headlight. For an instant—hours long—the outlines of a small sedan were etched with dreadful clearness against the w'hite of the roadbed. It seemed as if no force under Heaven could keep it from under our wheels. And then—it missed our pilot by inches and in one unforgettable flash I saw7 a child’s w7ondering eyes and a woman’s face—smiling!

Half a Ton Against Fifteen Thousand

'T'HE engine and train weighed about 15,000 tons; the motor car little better than half a ton. The engine wras traveling at sixty miles an hour; the car about fifty. The engineer saw the sedan’s lights w7hen they wrere more than a mile away; there w7as no question but that the driver saw7 the train, for the track w7as as straight as a ruler and there w*ere no obstructions to the view. Even had her view been obstructed, it would have been almost impossible for the woman not to have know7n of the approach of the train, for there was a w7ig-wag signal writh its light and gong, the locomotive headlight and its penetrating whistle and far-carrying bell.

Yet, In the face uf alt these she gambled her life and her child’s life to save a matter of three or four minutes at most.

On nights when 1 eat unwisely but well, my worst nightmare is that of a woman and child escaping death by less than a second. And she always is smiling at me.

What is this mad urge, this reckless impulse that leads men and women to wager their lives against seconds with heedless abandon? Is it the thrill of adventure? Or is it a reflection of the spirit of a power-made age? Whatever it is, that woman and her smile typify the attitude and the actions of many.

The Board of Railway Commissioners report that in the year 1926 there were 300 grade crossing accidents in Canada and that during the first six months of the present year there were 103 similar accidents.

Motor ears were involved in 235 of the 300 and in ninety of the 103. When it is remembered that the board’s compilation takes cognizance only of accidents in which death or personal injury are involved, these figures take on a terrible significance.

The t .>11 is terrific and yet most of it is utterly unnecessary. it is true » at an occasional accident may be written off to unavo dable circumstances—such cases are unusual - but in almost ninety-eight per cent, of the total of arc: lents, the motorist sins. Efficiency is one of .the high gods of our day. We are taught that the soul of efficiency is to do everything without error and in the best possible way. And yet such teaching seems to be of little avail when it comes to the almost mad worship in these later days of that lesser deity, Speed.

Why do people take the chances that they do take? Pure desire for thrill undoubtedly is a large factor, but there are other reasons. Mere triumph, for one.4 Making’ a crossing is something to boast of to one's friends, a subject of conversation at the country" club. Then, there is that superiority felt by' the person of twisted mentality’ who. because he takes chances, thinks he’s a better man than the driver, who considers himself, his family and his guests when he is driving a car. Or again, it may be pleasure in engineer baiting.

Engineer Baiting

YES, there are drivers who take pleasure in baiting engineers. They careen down the road as if to rush the crossing and stop within a foot or two of the track. They think

it a hilarious joke to hear the train brakes screech and the locomotive come to a sudden stop, almost in front of them. They sit in their car and laugh uproariously: the wrath of the pale-faced engineer is musk, to their ears. But sometimes the car brakes are faulty, the road is greasy, or the motorist misjudges his own speed. And then the inevitable happens.

To the man at the throttle, this baiting by the man at the wheel is as serious a matter as the mania of the speed fiend who races the train. Engineers have no means of labeling drivers and the man with a perverted sense of humor is always a potential casualty, a potential menace that puts the engineer’s nerves on the psychological rack, keeps him at the highest notch of tension and, in general, reduces his earning powers.

“It is a noteworthy fact,” commented Engineer J. S.

Crawford, who operates The International Limited as a regular run, “that I have yet to hear of an engineer who drives a car being mentioned among the list of motorists in a grade crossing accident. The reason is a simple one: He knows the

potential dangers of a crossing and he also knows the viewpoint of the man at the throttle. He invariably stops before he comes to any crossing, no matter whether it be branch or main line. A risk to him is something unnecessary and he sees so many others take it during working hours, that caution is second nature to him. There is not a week that every engineer does not have at least one narrow escape from striking a motor car and not a month passes but that he does not have to apply his emergency brakes three or

four times to prevent striking some reckless driver. I believe that if every motorist could ride a locomotive cab for a week and see the narrow escapes of their fellows, they would never pass a crossing without stopping. The motorists hear only of the accidents that actually take place and then they are but detached incidents in the newspapers. They never see them, nor do they even know of the escapes which donotfind their way into the press.” Engineer Crawford speaks as a railroad man of forty-six years service and as the driver of The International, off and on, for almost a quarter of a century. I write ‘off and on’, because he is also Chairman of the Legislative Board for Ontario of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Secretary of the Dominion Legislative Board of the same organization, and an ex-Mayor of Sarnia. Thus, his official duties have taken him away from the cab for considerable periods at a time.

Sunday Is Hoodoo Day

I WOULD like to emphasize,” Mr. Crawford continued, “that no one in Canada is more concerned with accidents than is the engineer. The effect upon him is indescribable and after a serious accident, or, for that matter, a series of near accidents, his nerve is so shattered that he frequently has to lay off until he can get somewhere near back to normal again. This means a direct monetary loss to the man and his family, which the careless motorist does not consider. But more important even then than this, is the additional responsibility which the motorist places upon his shoulders—shoulders already weighed down by responsibility. I often wonder what the motorist in search for thrills would think if he realized that there are possibly a hundred or more passengers on the train who have placed their lives in the

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The Odds Are On the Train

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hands of the engineer he is baiting? That the engineer feels this responsibility keenly and that this fact alone will keep his nerves at a high tension until his run is finished? Why then uselessly try and stretch this tension almost to the breaking point? It is not fair play; it is not doing justice to the man. It is criminal.

“I know one engineer, an experienced man with years of service, who will not take a run on Sundays. He calls that day ‘Hoodoo Day’, because there are so many different types of drivers on the highways. I also know several others, who after a bad accident, have driven their locomotives into the terminals and sat down and cried and shook as with ague. True they brought their trains in safely, possibly a score or more of miles after the accident happened and during that time were just as efficient as ever; but think of the extra strain under which they labored, of the death grip they kept upon their nerves. It is not the accident that kills, it is the reaction. Sometimes, the reaction does not come for hours or days; but it always comes and, when it does, it means loss of time and money to the engineer. I have been through the ordeal and I know from personal experience.”

There is one motorist who always,will remain indelibly marked upon Engineer Crawford’s memory. This was a young chap who lived in Western Ontario. His practice was to race a fast freight train daily. He would be running along the road at about fifteen miles per hour until the manifest freight came thundering along. Then he would speed up his powerful car to sixty miles and the race was on. Up the line about five miles, the road crossed the tracks and his delight was to speed over it in front of the freight, thus forcing the engineer to put on emergency brakes to avoid hitting him. He was appealed to, reasoned with, and resort was had to police help, but he could not be cured of his dangerous sport. “That young idiot will be hit some day,” the engineer of the freight said to Crawford, “and the fact that I may be the engineer is making a wreck of me.” Two days later the inevitable happened. For two weeks after, the engineer never went near his cab and the victim’s next of kin had the temerity to launch a damage action against the railway.

The Engineer’s Point of View

r"PHE question naturally arises,” said A Mr. Crawford, “has not the motorist a moral obligation to his fellow driver, the engineer. Let me make a comparison between the two: A motorist may drive almost as soon as he owns a car. He merely has to qualify for his license and whether the car be of the most expensive type or a second-hand one of the cheaper line and bought for a couple of hundred dollars, or so, he is free to operate on the highways. On the other hand, an engineer has to undergo a regular system of tests and examinations. Take my own case, as an example:

“As a fireman, in 1882, I had to pass a test for eyesight and hearing. When I was promoted to be an engineer, eight years later, I first had to pass an examination on rules and the mechanical parts of the engine, and a further one for sight and hearing. Then I had to know the road and pass a severe test as to its locations. Since that time, I have passed, perhaps a dozen other examinations. Then, for two years, I was tried on the subject of the air brake alone, which was one of the biggest tests. Likewise, the bcok of rules is altered at different times and examinations have to be passed e;ach time a change is made; while each year sight and hearing tests are given. All told, I would say that

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from the time any fireman or engineer enters the service, he is subjected to an examination at least every six months. Nothing is left to chance. A man must qualify to operate a locomotive.”

Mr. Crawford stopped and gazed reflectively at his locomotive. There was an air of quiet efficiency about him, a steadiness of his gray eyes which bespoke the capable type of men who keep the trains moving over the lines of Canada’s great transportation system. Of medium height, lean, with face lined by wind, cinders and care, his sixty-four years seemed to sit lightly upon him. He was of the mould that people look to in an emergency, dependable, impassive, and, one might almost add, hardbitten. When he turned there was a quizzical look in his i eyes. *T wonder,” be asked, “how many motorists would be driving to-day, if they had to pass one-quarter of our tests?” “But you are facing an existing condition,” I reminded him. “What is the j solution?”

“There is but one,” he returned. “The ^ 'stop law’. That is a law forcing all motorists to stop before passing a grade j crossing. As a Brotherhood, we have 1 given the subject our most serious ' thought and consideration and this seems ; to be the immediate solution to the j problem. We have held investigations from one coast to the other and each provincial board has reached the same conclusion. To eliminate grade crossings under present conditions is an economic ! impossibility. Therefore, we must take the next step which promises to give the i most assurance of success. This is the j ‘stop law’ and it is unanimously endorsed by our 5,500 members from the Atlantic I to the Pacific, comprising all roads in j Canada.”

The ‘Stop’ Law

MR. CRAWFORD drew from his pocket a booklet, rapidly thumbed over the pages. “Here,” he said, “is a copy of the minutes of our Ontario Provincial Legislative Board for this year, and one of the resolutions passed.” I read: ‘That we endeavor to have legislation enacted amending the Vehicles Act, compelling all vehicles to stop before passing over railroad crossings at grade.

“Then there are the minutes of the Dominion Legislative Board for the same year.” Mr. Crawford opened a second booklet. “We also passed this resolution.” It dealt with the subject more comprehensively:

‘We your committee appointed to bring in recommendations re highway grade crossings at level, beg leave to report as follows: We recommend the

adoption of the following clauses:

‘Clause One. That an operator’s I license shall not be issued to any person i under the age of sixteen years, and no I chauffeur’s license shall be issued to any person under the age of eighteen years.

‘Clause Two. The department shall not issue an operator’s or chauffeur’s license to any person who, it has determined, is a habitual drunkard or is i addicted to the use of narcotic drugs.

‘Clause Three. No operator’s or ! chauffeur’s license shall be issued to any applicant who has defective eyesight or I hearing, or who has previously been adjudged insane, or an idiot, imbecile, epileptic or feeble-minded, and who has I not at the time of such application been I restored to competency by judicial decree ! or released from a hospital for the insane or feeble-minded upon a certificate of the superintendent that such person is I competent, nor then, unless the department is satisfied that such person is competent to operate a motor vehicle with safety to persons and property.

‘Clause Four. Whenever any person driving a vehicle approaches a highway and interurban or steam railway grade crossing, and a clearly visible and positive signal gives warning of the immediate approach of a railway train or car, it shall

be unlawful for the driver of the vehicle to fail to bring the vehicle to a complete stop before traversing such grade crossing.

‘Clause Five. The Department is hereby authorized to designate particularly dangerous grade crossings of steam or interurban railways by highways, and to erect signs thereat notifying drivers of vehicles upon any such highways to come to a complete stop before crossing such railway tracks and whenever any such crossing is so designated and sigh-posted. It shall be unlawful for the driver of any vehicle to fail to stop within fifty feet, but not less than ten feet from such railway tracks before traversing such crossing.’

The Ten Commandments to Motorists

AND then,” Mr. Crawford smiled, -**■ “there are the ‘Ten Commandments to Motorists’.”

“‘The Ten Commandments?’” I echoed.

“Surely,” his hand again sought an overall pocket. “Here they are:”

1. Thou shalt learn to recognizè railroad crossings and approach them with extreme care.

2. Thou shalt look both ways and listen for trains.

3. Thou shalt be doubly alert if there are two or more tracks.

4. Thou shalt always use good judgment at railroad crossings that thy days may be long upon the land and the enjoyment of thy car continuous.

4. Thou shalt not kill the passengers within thy care.

6. Thou shalt keep thy brakes girded with effective brake lining.

7. Thou shalt not depend upon the

driver of the car ahead.

8. Thou shalt, when in doubt, take the safe course always.

9. Thou shalt not try to ‘beat the train.’ 10. Thou shalt Cross Crossings Cautiously.

“There is one thing I do not understand about motorists,” he spoke reflectively. “They seem to think that we are trying to fight them, when in reality we are only trying to help them. They appreciate the level crossing menace but they simply cannot see our side of it. They have bent all their energies to prevent the adoption of the ‘stop law’, yet they cheerfully accepted a similar ruling made by the police upon crossing through streets in Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor and other cities, while a similar law is now being enforced by the Province of Ontario in relation to its main highways. Why then, should a motorist protest at stopping at a level crossing where statistics show that the danger is equally great, if not greater?

“It might be the question of liability,” I suggested.

“That may be the case,” Mr. Crawford admitted. “But if the railway is to blame it would have to assume the liability as it does to-day. We went into that phase of the question before we made our recommendations. We feel that we are entitled to an equal consideration with the motorist, particularly when our earning capacity is at stake.”

The liability of the railroad in the event of the ‘stop law’ being enforced against motorists was confirmed by D. F. McCraw, Assistant Chief Claims Agent, Canadian National Railways, who said that “any railroad is responsible insofar as its failure to carry out its statutory obligations is concerned. The same conditions prevail to-day.

“It has been suggested that in recommending this law be enacted, the railways have a selfish motive in that they would be relieved from liability in case of accident, but this is entirely incorrect, because in at least two of our provinces a ‘Contributory Negligence Act’ applies and under this act, if both the railway company and the motorist are at fault,

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the damages in any action are apportioned, whereas prior to the passing of the act negligence of a motorist entirely precluded recovery.

“It is interesting to note,” Mr. McCraw concluded, “that two of the biggest corporations in Canada and the United States, which operate hundreds of motor vehicles, have made an arbitrary ruling that all drivers must stop before passing a level crossing. The penalty for disobedience is immediate dismissal. In one company this rule has been in force for two years; in the other for a lesser period; but in each case no truck or delivery wagon of either corporation has figured in a grade crossing accident since the rule went into effect.”

The Wrong Place For Speed

SPEED—simply speed in the wrong place—is what Mr. McCraw believes to be the cause of the grade crossing accidents. Recently he had an analysis of this type of accident prepared, covering approximately 1950 miles of the road during last year. The territory selected was that between Toronto and Windsor, on both main and branch lines, as this section of the system contains the density of population in the Central Region and is claimed to own the largest number of automobiles per capita. The report shows that, during the year, a total of 125 grade crossing accidents occurred, of which fifty-seven involved injury or death, with a casualty list of fourteen people killed and eighty-nine injured. Concerned in these accidents were seventy-six of the cheaper types of motor cars; forty-two of the expensive types; and seven wagons or sleighs. Automobile accidents, therefore, represented 96.6 per cent, of the total.

Probably, the most startling feature which the report brought out was that the element of surprise did not enter into the majority of the accidents and that a higher percentage of them occurred in the daylight and at crossings classed as ‘good’. Under the heading ‘Domicile of Drivers’, the report reads: “Seventy-six resided in the same town or village in which the accident occurred; thirtythree lived within twenty miles of the scene; and sixteen might be termed strangers to the district.”

The report further showed that of the total number of these accidents, ninetyfive occurred in daylight and thirty after dark; and the view at the crossings were classified as sixty-five, good; forty-one, fair; and nineteen, poor.

In thirty-three of the accidents, the analysis points out that the cars ran into some part of the engine or train.

What is the solution of this problem? During this year there were so many reports received of motor cars smashing through gates at protected crossings, or damaging railway equipment that the Legal Department of the National System publically announced that in future the negligent motorist who

damages railway property will be sued. Ft is a well-known fact that to enter court is a costly affair. Therefore, the aggregat» damage must be considerable to force the railway to take such action.

The Only Available Remedy

* I 'HE complete cure of the grade crossing problem would, of course, be the total elimination of all level crossings but that can only be brought about gradually. It is estimated that there are more than 53,000 such crossings in Canada. Assuming that there are 3,000 of them protected in one way or another, it would cost the railways and the country about $150,000,000 a year, or approximately $3,000 a year per crossing to protect the remainder by watchmen working in three shifts at eight hours each. To eliminate all crossings entirely would be beyond the financial resources of the railways and the country, as a recent survey made indicated that the average cost per crossing would be in the neighborhood of $50,000.

In the meantime, The Board of Railway Commissioners are constantly inspecting the unprotected crossings, and, as fast as the railway companies and the municipalities can stand the financial strain, they are ordering their elimination or protection, as necessity demands; but at best this is a slow process and must extend over a period of years.

Therefore, we must look elsewhere for protection under present conditions. The woman who so carelessly risked thé lives of herself and her child in front of The International Limited had no suicidal intent. Doubtless, at home she is most careful of the little one’s welfare and would pale at the thought of her playing with matches. But in a car the situation was different. She was enjoying a wild and exhilarating race. Did she realize that Death was the stakeholder? Or did she realize the strain she was putting on the engineer?

Had she seen him climbing down from his cab at London Station, to sit beside his engine, head in hand, with tears running down his face, she might have seen the reckless adventure in a new light. He was scheduled to take his train into Sarnia, a distance of fifty-nine miles. But he had missed hitting a woman and a child by the narrowest of a narrow margin. The thought shattered his nerve. Another engineer had to be secured to complete the run.

What then of the engineer’s side of the grade crossing accidents? Is he not entitled to be heard? He claims—and with justification—that the careless motorist and the speed-mad motorist are imperilling his job, decreasing his earning powers, and making him old before his time through the strain of anxiety and care. He does not ask for much to protect him. No more, in fact, than the big cities and the Department of Highways have put into effect to protect the motorist against himself—the ‘stop-law’.

Is he not entitled to it?