Published by EH.Net (July 2019)

Mark Aldrich, Back on Track: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1965-2015. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. xvi + 284 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2415-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Cody Nehiba, Center for Energy Studies, Louisiana State University and Alexander Luttmann, MITRE Corporation.

Since the early 1800s, railroads have played an integral role in the development of the U.S. economy. Though railroads contributed to the industrialization of the United States, the legacy of freight and passenger rail travel has been tarnished by periods of declining safety determined, in large part, by the market forces and regulations faced by carriers. The catastrophe of major train derailments and accidents, however rare, has often prompted legislative changes aimed at reducing the volume and severity of such accidents. The effectiveness of these safety regulations has often depended on how the regulations influenced carrier incentives.

Mark Aldrich, the Marilyn Carlson Nelson Professor Emeritus of Economics at Smith College, provides a comprehensive review of U.S. railroad safety, including major wrecks, regulatory changes, and technological innovations. His new book extends his previous work (Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) on railroad safety to the modern era. The work delves deeply into both major accidents and the far more numerous “little accidents” that do not involve train wrecks, but significantly contribute to railroad injuries and fatalities. Economic intuition is employed throughout the book to understand the underlying factors of both major and little accidents in the modern era.

Aldrich’s book contains six chapters split into two main parts. The first three chapters provide a history of railroad safety from 1828-2015, which like a business cycle, waxed and waned over time. The final chapters chronicle the separate, but still linked, histories of freight, passenger, motorist, and trespasser safety. The author intertwines encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. railroad accidents with a discussion that outlines how market forces, technological advancement, and regulations influenced railroad safety. Common incentives to improve safety in the modern era are abundant. For example, deregulation in 1980 allowed carriers to eliminate unprofitable lines, alter freight pay rates and passenger fares, and merge end-to-end service. These factors increased profitability, providing carriers with opportunities to invest in technological advancements, such as improved air brakes and continuously welded rails, which improved safety and efficiency.

The book begins by providing historical context on the U.S. railroad industry, all the way back to the early nineteenth century. The industry in the early 1800s was categorized by rapid expansion accompanied by a substantial increase in railroad accidents. Despite safety improvements throughout the nineteenth century, the public’s negative view towards rail operators culminated in additional government oversight. Increased regulation greatly impeded the carriers’ profitability leading to deteriorating safety from the 1950’s until the industry’s deregulation. After deregulation, safety, in general, gradually improved as carriers began to compete more fiercely and on new dimensions. However, these safety gains were not uniform across the industry because carriers faced different incentives with regard to decreasing worker, passenger, motorist, and trespasser accidents.

The second portion of the book segments the discussion of modern railroad safety by accident type, beginning with worker safety. Between 1955 and 1969, an abundant number of worker related accidents increased the public’s awareness of abhorrent workplace safety conditions, renewing political pressure on the industry. This pressure, in conjunction with increasing costs of worker-related accidents, resulted in considerable improvements in worker safety after 1969. These cost increases were primarily a function of the legal liabilities associated with work-related accidents resulting from the Federal Employers Liability Act. For example, $3.6 million dollars were paid to the estates of two workers killed in a head-on collision on the Burlington Northern in 1984. While this period also saw an increase in regulatory oversight from both Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), their impact is unclear because the mandates overlapped with prevailing market incentives. However, the importance of the FRA’s involvement in fostering positive labor management safety environments should not be overlooked.

Chapter 5 turns the discussion to passenger safety. While legal liabilities for worker-related accidents increased over this period, railroads were already fully liable for passenger-related injuries and fatalities. This difference in accountability may explain passenger safety improvements from 1955 to the 1980’s while worker safety decreased over the first half of this period. However, since the 1980’s, there has been little change to passenger safety. Over the last thirty years, major train wrecks have become rarer as traffic has shifted to higher density and better maintained commuter lines. Further reducing wrecks on these lines requires installing technological advances that fail cost-benefit tests. For example, retrofitting lines with positive train control, which automatically reduces train speeds as they enter curves to prevent derailments, produce benefits of $500 million compared to $1.2 billion dollars in costs. Despite the decrease in major accidents, trains on commuter lines have had an increased risk of being involved in little accidents (e.g. passengers falling off station platforms).

Aldrich ends his discussion of modern railroad safety by focusing on motorist and trespasser accidents. Trespasser accidents over this period significantly decreased with expanding urbanization and the widespread adoption of the automobile. Surprisingly, the large increase in vehicle miles traveled, due to the rapid expansion of the U.S. highway system, did not lead to a spike in grade crossing accidents. The implementation and technological advancements in guarded crossings and crossing signaling helped keep the volume of these accidents down. Railroad companies invested in these technological improvements because of federal intervention and increases in hazmat and semi-truck traffic, which made grade crossing accidents more costly.

Overall, Aldrich provides an extensive review of U.S. railroad safety. Readers who are particularly interested in modern railroad safety may be disappointed with the first half of the book which provides a lengthy review of railroad safety from the early nineteenth century to 1965. This issue notwithstanding, the second half of the book provides a more cohesive and enjoyable discussion of the various classes of railroad safety in the modern era.

Cody Nehiba is an Assistant Professor of Research in the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University. His research examines the regulation of negative externalities with specific focuses on the transportation sector and fossil fuel taxation. He earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Irvine in 2019.

In August, Alexander Luttman will join the MITRE Corporation as a Lead Economist in the Transportation Performance and Economic Analysis division. His recent dissertation at the University of California, Irvine delves into the pricing practices of U.S. airlines while also addressing how particular legislative mandates affect competition and service quality throughout the industry.

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