At about 9:00 p.m. local time on February 3, East Palestine in eastern Ohio, USA was peaceful. This small town with a population of less than 5,000 people ended a busy day. Some people chatted freely in the bar on the main street of the town. , Some people arrange their children to wash at home, ready to let them enter the sweet dreamland. At this time, there was a sudden explosion, and then the flames shot into the sky, breaking the tranquility of the town, and their lives would also undergo earth-shaking changes.
The source of the explosion was a derailed freight train from the Norfolk Southern Railway Company, which was carrying harmful chemicals and then leaked. In the next three weeks, two more train derailments in the United States killed a lorry driver.
The current situation of frequent rail accidents in the United States is in stark contrast to its past history. Once upon a time, the American railways were the object of the world’s attention, and the gradually extending railways closely connected the entire North American continent like capillaries. People can’t help asking: Why did the American railways decline so far?
Golden Age of American Railroads
Turn the clock back to nearly two centuries ago, in 1833, Charleston, the capital of South Carolina, was crowded with people, and everyone was eagerly waiting for the arrival of the train. After a long wait, the locomotive with black smoke finally appeared in people’s sight. The train was loaded with white cotton. They come from inland South Carolina 200 kilometers away, and then they will be loaded in Charleston and sailed to the northern United States or Europe to provide raw materials for the nascent cotton textile industry. Three years ago, the line became the first railroad in the United States to provide regular passenger service. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, responsible for building and operating the railway, was one of the predecessors of the Norfolk Southern Railway Company.
The need for transporting people and raw materials in the capitalist economy drove the development of railroads in the United States, and even the pre-war South, which was always considered to be very backward in terms of industrialization, was also involved in this wave. At that time, the eastern states of the United States were competing to build canals and railways to improve the connection between the coast and the inland and promote economic development. Among them, the Whig Party was the most enthusiastic, emphasizing that in addition to benefiting the economy, the improvement of transportation conditions would also help promote the formation of national identity. They provide financial support to private canal and railroad companies through financial allocations and bond issuance.
The Whig Party withdrew from the political arena in the early 1850s, and the Republican Party inherited its ideas. Taking advantage of the fact that almost all Southern representatives had withdrawn from Congress during the American Civil War, the Republican-dominated Congress passed a bill to build a transcontinental railroad. The government issued bonds and donated the land along the line to the railway company for sale, thereby raising corresponding funds. In 1869, at the Promontory Peak in Utah, countless workers and celebrities gathered here to witness the railway magnate Henryland Stanford driving a golden spike into the railroad track. The railroads of the Midwest are connected in one piece. The railway transported immigrants westward, developed the land in the American inland, and countless towns sprung up, while wheat and beef cattle were continuously transported to the city, and Chicago became the center of the Midwest of the United States.
U.S. government intervenes in railroad regulation
However, while the strong support of the U.S. government promoted the construction of railway projects, it also gave birth to many corruptions and monopolies. The railway tycoons represented by Stanford and Collis Huntington called the wind and rain, and the railway companies colluded with each other to charge high freight charges. , Farmers were overwhelmed and called on the government to strengthen the supervision of railway transportation. Many states have also successively passed laws in an attempt to crack down on the monopoly behavior of railway companies, but these laws are only valid within the boundaries of each state, and are beyond the reach of interstate rail transportation activities.
At this time, the Grange Movement, founded in 1867, took effect. In the devastated south after the Civil War, farmers huddled together to keep warm, and based on the Freemasonry as a template, they established an agricultural mutual aid organization called “Grange”. The model quickly spread west, making farmers’ voices nationally representative. The Grange lobbied Congress several times to pass national railroad regulation laws. Their efforts for more than ten years finally paid off in 1886. Congress legislated in that year to establish the Interstate Commerce Commission, requiring railway companies to disclose freight standards and prohibiting the distinction between large and small customers. Supervision.
In addition to freight, railway safety has also become an issue of concern to the outside world. After the train appeared, its speed much faster than that of a horse-drawn carriage and its greater passenger capacity not only improved transportation efficiency, but also caused more casualties. Railway safety regulations are built on the basis of the blood and tears of an accident. At first, efforts to improve safety were left to the railroads themselves, but as the interstate rail network grew, the federal government had to get involved in rail safety.
In December 1867, a train was speeding through New York State. The train was delayed by more than two hours due to the weather, and the driver picked up speed in an effort to make up lost time. Suddenly, the last car derailed, the brakes failed to stop the car from sliding, and the stove inside the car caught fire, burning the passengers alive. The culprit of the accident was the compromised wheel width design of the train carriages to accommodate the gauges of different railway companies, which greatly affected the stability of the train. After the accident, the United States unified the rail gauge and improved brakes and heating.
In 1876, also in the depths of winter, a railroad bridge over the Ashtabula River in Ohio collapsed. The train driver who was driving across the bridge heard a loud bang and then felt a force pull the train down. The entire train, except the locomotive, fell into the river. Like the accident nine years ago, the fire and oil lamps on the car lit up the car again, and the wailing of the passengers was earth-shattering. Afterwards, a special committee of the Ohio legislature investigating the accident drafted a bill requiring standards for bridge design, but the state legislature was indifferent.
Train accidents like these that cause major injuries are just the tip of the iceberg of risks to railroad operations. For workers on the railroad, everyday dangers are everywhere. The connection and decoupling of each car needs to be done manually. Imagine that two heavy cars are close to each other, but workers have to stand between them to ensure that the sockets of the two cars match, and then insert the bolts. Once the timing is not grasped, the fingers or palms may be lost at the slightest, and the passenger may be squeezed flat by the carriage at the worst. In addition, when the train is about to slow down until it comes to a stop, the brakeman has to climb on the roof of the moving train, move from one roof to the other, and set the handbrake of each car, even if it is windy and snowy. It is conceivable that if you are a little careless and your feet are unstable, you may fall from the roof of the car, and you will either die or be disabled. At that time, railway workers were second only to miners in terms of danger and probability of death and injury.
Until 1886, the newly formed Interstate Commerce Commission gained the power to investigate railroad accidents, which marked a major breakthrough for the federal government to intervene in railroad safety matters. Iowa Railroad Commissioner Lorenzo Coffin called on Congress to build on this and improve working conditions for railroad workers. Coffin was committed to promoting the establishment of farmers’ mutual aid organizations in his early years, so he had a keen sense of the greed of the railroad companies. Later, in the railway workers’ nursing home, he saw many railway workers who lost their limbs due to accidents, heard too many tragic stories about brake workers, and realized that the reason why the railway companies did not adopt safer new technologies was entirely out of Consider reducing costs.
With more than ten years of hard work by Coffin, in 1893, through Congressional legislation, railway safety affairs were officially transferred from the state governments to the Interstate Commerce Commission for supervision, and at the same time a series of new railway safety regulations were formulated, such as requiring train carriages Equipped with pneumatic brakes and automatic hook-ups to reduce the use of handbrakes that are fraught with hazards, while stopping the use of manual hook-up and unhook work. This became the starting point for Congress to continuously formulate bills and intervene in railway safety affairs in the future.
In addition to regulating safety matters, the US government even stepped in to manage the size of the railroad company. In 1902, the U.S. government sued the court on the grounds of suspected monopoly and blocked the merger plan of the three railway companies. The relevant railway companies appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but still ended in defeat. However, the US government’s attitude towards railroads will soon change again.
Challenges for American Railroads
In 1903, the Ford Motor Company was founded. Five years later, the Ford Model T sedan was officially unveiled. This easy-to-operate, relatively inexpensive car suddenly attracted people’s attention. In 1913, the assembly line appeared in the Ford factory. The conveyor belt pushed the car frame forward one by one. The workers installed the parts they were responsible for on the car frame according to the process. Ford cars walked off the assembly line and entered thousands of homes. households, and traveled across the country along roads newly funded by the government.
In Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the same year the Ford Motor Company was founded, the Wright brothers took off in an airplane of their own design. Although the flight lasted only 12 seconds, it marked the beginning of civil aviation. Eleven years later, Florida saw the world’s first scheduled passenger airline. Since World War I demonstrated the potential of air power in warfare, the U.S. government fostered aviation after the war by subsidizing postal transportation and building airports.
The U.S. government’s “transferring love” has led to a disadvantageous position for railroad companies whose freight rates are still limited by the Interstate Commerce Commission. In addition, American society still remembers the chaos and disorder of railway transportation during World War I. A large amount of military materials could not be transported to the port in time, and the raw materials that should have been sent to factories were piled up at the station. , just improved. In view of this, Congress passed a bill in 1920, while returning the railroads to private companies, and at the same time required the Interstate Commerce Commission to formulate a plan to promote the merger and integration of intra-regional railroad companies to enhance their profitability.
The Interstate Commerce Commission entrusted the matter to William Z. Ripley, a political economist who taught at Harvard University. The man is no stranger to railroad affairs. He participated in the negotiations between the railroad company and the coal mining company as early as 1900, and later published a book discussing the freight rate setting of the railroad company, and helped resolve the strike of railroad workers during the First World War. question. It took Ripley three years to complete the report, recommending that the regional railroads of the United States be integrated into twenty-one companies. The Interstate Commerce Commission took six years to publish his report and hold hearings. Just at this time, the Wall Street stock market crashed, the Great Depression came, and the U.S. government was so overwhelmed that it had no time to take care of the integration of the railway company, so the matter was left alone. Weak railroads went bankrupt in the Great Depression, and the big railroads that survived the crisis showed little interest in mergers and acquisitions.
The busy business during World War II allowed Amtrak to maintain prosperity for a period of time. However, a rising figure from World War II will be the final straw for the railroads. Turning the clock back to 1919, an Army convoy of 81 cars set off from Washington, aiming for San Francisco. They will complete a transcontinental trip to test the mobility of military vehicles. Among the officers driving was Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower, who was 29 years old at the time. Along the way, the poor road conditions made the convoy miserable, and vehicles broke down constantly. They arrived in San Francisco seven days later than originally planned.
Thirty-three years later, the then lieutenant colonel became the president of the United States. In addition to the memories of his early years, the German highway system he saw in the European battlefield of World War II also deepened the president’s understanding of the importance of highways. What’s more, at this time, his circle of friends is also full of representatives of the interests of the auto industry. Charles Wilson, who served as the Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower administration for a long time, was previously the president of General Motors. He once boasted that “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States.” Under the influence of the above factors, in 1956, the construction of the interstate highway network was officially started, and 90% of its funds came from gasoline taxes.
The completion of the interstate highway network was a blow to the railroads, whose business was in decline, while the Interstate Commerce Commission was determined not to allow them to close money-losing lines. As a result, railroad companies went bankrupt, including giants like Penn Central. In response, in 1970, the U.S. government established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to take over the business of Penn Central to prevent railroad lines from being abandoned. The company receives grant subsidies from the U.S. government every year to maintain operations.
More importantly, since the second half of the 1970s, the U.S. government has successively weakened the regulatory power of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Railway companies can finally compete with road transportation and air transportation. They adjust freight rates and shut down to lose money. line. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a large-scale wave of mergers and acquisitions among railway companies to integrate resources and enhance competitiveness. Norfolk Southern Railway Company is the product of this wave, and has a large market share in the eastern United States. In addition, in the early 21st century, the U.S. government increased investment in railway infrastructure, while rising oil prices increased the cost of road and air transportation, and railway companies once again had a second spring in the freight market.
While the railroads have been rejuvenated, the U.S. government has not loosened its oversight of rail safety. In 1966, the newly established U.S. Department of Transportation administered the Federal Railroad Administration, which was responsible for supervising railway safety affairs and formulating relevant policies and safety standards for railway safety management. Its safety inspector has a card to prove his identity, can carry out inspection at any time, and stop the operation of the train if it is determined that there is a safety hazard. In addition, an independent National Transportation Safety Board was established in 1974 to conduct rail accident investigations.
However, the specific effect of railway supervision is restricted by the company’s interests and the government’s governance philosophy. Since the 1990s, railway companies have successively adopted point-to-point regular “precision railway transportation” to replace the previous transportation mode that was adjusted according to traffic volume and had to go through major railway freight centers. This change boosted the railroad’s bottom line, but at the expense of vastly longer trains, fewer workers required, and widespread employee fatigue. In light of this, the FRA proposed in 2016 to impose a minimum number of employees per train, but withdrew the initiative in 2019. All of these led to the Ohio tragedy.
The relationship between the U.S. government and railway companies has undergone several changes. First, it spared no effort to support the development of railways, and then began to supervise them and restrict mergers. Under the multiple effects of the complex and ever-changing international situation and the ever-changing technological revolution, railway companies gradually lost their Ability to meet the challenges of the automotive and aerospace industries. In view of this, the U.S. government has gone to another extreme and gave the green light to the merger of railway companies. While revitalizing the American railways, it has also brought new safety hazards. The chain reaction brought about by these hidden dangers is ongoing… …