The Great American Railroad with Mark Aldrich

It is hard to think of another industry in which safety has taken such as roller coaster ride as it has on railroads. When I wrote Death Rode the Rails, which charted rail safety down to 1965, it was a great success story. I stopped in 1965 because that was the end of ICC safety regulation. Though I knew that safety had begun to fall apart by then, I didn’t know why. No one else has told more than parts of this story and so Back on Track is my effort at home schooling.

Until I began to dig I did not know how broadly and badly safety had collapsed. Like everyone else I had forgotten the hazmat accidents of the 1970s. Yet these were only the most spectacular instances of an upsurge in derailments that coincided with a rise in worker fatality rates and the growing slaughter at rail-highway crossings. One of the most important things I learned were the intimate connection between the railroads’ economic health and their safety, the second how difficult it was for those with a vested interest in economic regulation to grasp that. Many things caused the railroads’ economic decline but economic regulation at all levels was the key to the arch. Congress responded to worsening safety problems by federalizing virtually all of railroad safety in 1970; yet it took nearly a decade in which safety failed to improve much for a consensus to form that that economic deregulation and economic health were both central to better safety.

With economic deregulation --to return to my metaphor -- the roller coaster again reversed. While by most measures railroads had gotten more dangerous in the 1960s and 1970s, after about 1980 safety again began to improve and it has continued to this day. The carriers’ need to compete in an intermodal environment in which service is crucial makes accidents of all sorts expensive. Freed to compete, the carriers had both the resources and incentives to improve safety and they have done so.

The third important thing I learned is that the kind of public-private partnership that shapes modern railroad safety is more similar to the earlier regulatory regime that I termed “voluntarism” than I had imagined. There are differences: the Federal Railroad Administration has jurisdiction over virtually all railroad safety as the ICC did not, and the National Transportation Safety Board provides the gold standard in accident investigations. There is also much more federal money now – especially for grade crossing safety. But there are surprising continuities as well, for the FRA rules with a light hand, backstopping the carriers, and their suppliers and the technical association, which remain the first line of defense. 

This public-private safety system has a lot of parts and my new book provides readers a glimpse of how it works and why it usually works so well. It is easy to take such safety progress for granted, but as the railroads’ story warns, that is ill advised.

Mark Aldrich is the Marilyn Carlson Nelson Professor of Economics emeritus at Smith College. He is the author of Safety First: Technology, Labor, and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870–1939 and Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828–1965. He is also the author of  Back on Track: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1965-2015