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Death Rode the Rails

, 480 pages

40 halftones, 29 line drawings

October 2009



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Death Rode the Rails

American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828–1965

For most of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, railroads dominated American transportation. They transformed life and captured the imagination. Yet by 1907 railroads had also become the largest cause of violent death in the country, that year claiming the lives of nearly twelve thousand passengers, workers, and others. In Death Rode the Rails Mark Aldrich explores the evolution of railroad safety in the United States by examining a variety of incidents: spectacular train wrecks, smaller accidents in shops and yards that devastated the lives of workers and their families, and the deaths of thousands of women and children killed while walking on or crossing the street-grade tracks.

The evolution of railroad safety, Aldrich argues, involved the interplay of market forces, science and technology, and legal and public pressures. He considers the railroad as a system in its entirety: operational realities, technical constraints, economic history, internal politics, and labor management. Aldrich shows that economics initially encouraged American carriers to build and operate cheap and dangerous lines. Only over time did the trade-off between safety and output—shaped by labor markets and public policy—motivate carriers to develop technological improvements that enhanced both productivity and safety.

A fascinating account of one of America's most important industries and its dangers, Death Rode the Rails will appeal to scholars of economics and the history of transportation, technology, labor, regulation, safety, and business, as well as to railroad enthusiasts.

Mark Aldrich is the Marilyn Carlson Nelson Professor of Economics Emeritus at Smith College and the author of Safety First: Technology, Labor, and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870–1939, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"A fascinating account of one of America's most important industries and its dangers."

"A well-made book such as this one stands out as a rare exception."

"Students of rail safety, and today's Class I railroad managers, need to read this volume."

"Aldrich has created a masterpiece. His research is extensive, drawing on a rich variety of obscure yet relevant sources."

"Aldrich... has done an excellent and thorough job of explaining and analyzing the evolution of rail safety over nearly two hundred years."

"One of the first large-scale scholarly studies of railroad safety in America... I recommend this book without qualifications."

"An excellent narrative of the evolution of public and industry focus on industrial safety."

"Important new book... A significant contribution to the study of both industrial safety and consumer safety as exemplified by one of the most important industries in our nation's history."

"A thought-provoking and well-grounded contribution to the history of American economic development."

"Pioneering... A central message of Aldrich's book is that 'little accidents' played a crucial though until now largely hidden role in the gradual evolution of a risk society."

"A work of merit... Essential reading for historians of transport safety, business, and technology."

"Impressive and thoroughly researched... Demonstrates how railroad safety evolved from the intersection of market pressures, technology, and public sentiment."

"Aldrich has written the field-defining work on railroad safety... An important corrective to the simplistic notion that railroad companies wanted nothing to do with safety before the era of federal regulation."

"A masterful study of the complex evolution of railroad safety."

"Highly informative... A worthwhile read."

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