The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 32, June, 1860 online

. (page 1 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 32, June, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Cornell University, Joshua Hutchinson, Thomas
Hutchinson and PG Distributed Proofreaders



VOL. V. - JUNE, 1860. NO. XXXII.


The condition of our railways, and their financial prospects, should
interest all of us. It has become a common remark, that railways have
benefited everybody but their projectors. There is a strong doubt in the
minds of many intelligent persons, whether _any_ railways have actually
paid a return on the capital invested in them. It is believed that one of
two results inevitably takes place: in the one case, there is not business
enough to earn a dividend; in the other, although the apparent net earnings
are large enough to pay from six to eight per cent. on the cost, yet in a
few years it is discovered that the machine has been wearing itself out so
fast that the cost of renewal has absorbed more than the earnings, and the
deficiency has been made up by creating new capital or running in debt, to
supply the place of what has been worn out and destroyed. The Illinois
Central has been pointed out as an example of the first kind; the New-York
Central, of the second; while the New-York and Erie is a melancholy
instance of a railway which, never having enough legitimate business of its
own, has worn itself out in carrying at unremunerative rates whatever it
could steal from its neighbors. The general opinion of the community, after
the crash of 1857, was, that all our railways approximated more or less
closely to these unhappy conditions, and it was merely a question of time
as to their final bankruptcy and ruin. Even now, when they have recovered
themselves considerably, and are paying dividends again, capitalists are
very shy of them.

It is our belief, contrary to the current opinion, that during the next
decade such a change will have taken place in the condition of our
railways, that we shall see them averaging eight to ten per cent, dividends
on their legitimate cost. We propose in the present article to give the
reasons which have led us to this conclusion.

The causes to which may be traced the languishing condition of our railways
may be stated as follows: - Financial mismanagement; imperfect construction;
and want of individual responsibility in their operation.

The financial mismanagement of our railways has arisen from precisely the
opposite cause to that which has made British railways cost from two to
three times as much as they should have done. Their excess of cost was
owing to their having too much money; ours to our having too little. They
were robbed right and left for Parliamentary expenses, land-damages,
etc. The Great Northern, from London to York, three hundred and fourteen
miles, expended five millions of dollars in getting its charter.
Mr. E. Stephenson says that the cost of land and compensation on British
railways has averaged forty-three thousand dollars per mile, or as much as
the total cost of the railways of Massachusetts.

American railway-companies have never been troubled with too much money.
They have usually commenced with a great desire for economy, selecting a
"cheap" engineer, and getting a low estimate of the probable cost. A
portion of the amount is subscribed for in stock, and the next thing is to
run in debt. "First mortgage bonds" are issued and sold. The proceeds are
expended, and the road is not half done. Another issue is sold at a great
discount, and yet another, if possible. As the road approaches completion,
the desperate Directors raise money by the most desperate expedients, such
as would bankrupt any merchant in the country in his private business.
Sometimes the road has vitality enough to work itself out of its troubles;
but in other cases, unfortunately too numerous, it passes into the hands of
the bond-holders, and all it can earn goes to remunerate trustees, and pay
legal expenses, commissions, etc.

The financial mistakes of our railways have been, endeavoring to do too
much with too little money, and crippling themselves with a load of debt
that no project could stand under. This has led, as a matter of course, to
the second evil, - Imperfect construction. The projectors of a new railway
have thus reasoned with themselves: - "The average cost of our railways has
been between forty and fifty thousand dollars per mile, and this one, no
doubt, will reach those figures before we get through. But it will never do
to talk so, or we could not get the money to build it. Mr. Transit, our
engineer, says it can be opened for twenty thousand dollars per mile, and
we will earn money enough to finish it by-and-by." So they go on, and, to
get the road open for the small sum attainable, everything has to be
"scrimped" and pared down to the lowest scale. The cuttings are taken out
just wide enough for the cars to pass through, and the ends of the ties
overhang the edges of the embankments. Temporary trestle-work of wood is
substituted for stone bridges and culverts. Some reckless fellow tosses
down the iron as fast as a horse can trot, and the road is opened.

Another way in which imperfect construction is inevitable is where
companies admit their inability to be their own financiers by giving some
influential contractor his price, and allowing him to "do his own
engineering," in consideration of his taking such securities as they have
to offer, and which he undertakes to float by means of his superior
connections. Having the thing his own way, and being naturally anxious to
build his road for as little money as possible, he pares down everything
even below the standard of embarrassed railway-boards. If the road will
only hold together until he has sold his bonds, it is all he asks. If the
business is good, the road will perhaps be finished, or what is thought to
be finished, some day or other. If business is dull, nothing is done, and
the bridges and trestle-works remain such murder-traps as that on the
Albany Northern Road which broke down last year.

But it is not with such miserable apologies for railways that we have to
deal. It is on our really valuable roads, like the main lines in
Massachusetts and New York, that we shall show that the evils of imperfect
construction are felt, and will be felt, until a thorough reconstruction
has taken place. It was observed some time ago that the returns of the
Massachusetts railways for 1856 showed that there were 1,325 miles open,
costing on an average $46,480 per mile, or $61,611,721 in all. The receipts
per mile of road were $7,217, the expenses $4,260, leaving a net earning of
$2,957, or 40 per cent. of the whole. This was equal to 6.42 per cent. on
the whole cost of the railways.

For the same year the returns of all the railways in Great Britain showed
that there were 8,502 miles open, costing $173,040 per mile, or
$1,506,826,363 in all; and that the receipts per mile of road were $13,296,
the expenses $6,249, leaving a net earning of $7,047, or 53 per cent of the
whole. This was equal to a dividend of 3.97 per cent. on the whole
cost. These figures showed, that, however extravagantly the British
railways had been built, they certainly were worked more economically than
our own.

At first view it might be thought that the economy was due to their greater
business; but further inquiry showed, that, from the better shape of
American cars, and from the wants of the public requiring fewer trains, the
actual receipts per mile run of Massachusetts trains were $1.83 against
$1.44 of British trains. The expenses per mile run of Massachusetts trains
were $1.08, while those of British trains were only 63 3/8 cents. Could
Massachusetts railways be worked as cheaply, the result would be that they
could declare nine per cent. dividends on their cost, instead of six.

Here offered a rich reward for investigation. Accordingly two gentlemen
well known to the railway world, Messrs. Zerah Colburn and Alexander
L. Holley, made a trip to England for the purpose of discovering how it was
that John Bull could work his railways so much cheaper than Brother
Jonathan. The results of their investigations are embodied in a handsome
quarto volume, illustrated with numerous drawings, which has been
subscribed for by most of the railways and prominent railway-men throughout
the country. It is not too much to say, that the effect of it, in directing
the attention of American railway-managers to the weak points of their
system, has resulted already in a saving to the stockholders of our
railways of millions of dollars. [Footnote: The statistics of the English
railways given in this article are taken from the volume here referred to.

Because some cunning English contractors in South America took advantage of
the statements in this book to depreciate the American railway system and
American civil engineers, for their own private advantage in obtaining
work, some Americans have been so foolish as to decry the book altogether,
as traitorous to the interests of the country. Such mingled bigotry and
conceit, shrinking from just criticism, would fetter all progress but
fortunately it is rare.]

More than half the cost of operating a railway consists of the repairs of
track and machinery and the cost of fuel and oil. These expenses are
exactly proportional to the mileage of trains. It was soon seen that the
greater economy of British railways was almost entirely confined to these

The cost of "maintenance of way" upon English railways was 10 1/2 cents per
mile run, against 25 cents on those of Massachusetts. The cost of repairs
of cars and engines was nearly the same on both. The cost of fuel per mile
run was 6 1/2 cents, against 15 cents. While English trains are from 20 to
30 per cent. lighter than ours, they average 25 per cent. faster, so that
practically these conditions must nearly balance each other. In alignment
the English roads are superior to ours, and as to gradients they have some
advantage; although grades of 40 to 52.8 feet per mile are quite common.
In climate they have less severe difficulties to contend with; although
their moist weather, the nature of their soil, and their heavy earthworks
involve much extra expense. In prices, the advantage is at least 20 per
cent, in their favor.

These considerations might account for an economy of 30 per cent. as
compared with our expenses for maintenance of way, but they cannot account
for the great actual economy of 60 per cent. which we have seen. We must
seek farther to find the explanation of this, and we soon discover it by
comparing the condition of the road-beds and tracks on the railways of the
two countries.

The English railways are thoroughly built, are not opened to the public
until finished, and no expense is spared to keep them in order. American
railways are too often put in operation when half finished. The consequence
is, they never are finished, and are continually wearing out, - not lasting,
on an average, more than half as long as they should, if once thoroughly
constructed. Wooden bridges are allowed to rot down for want of protection.
Rails are left to be battered to pieces for want of drainage and ballast.
One road spends thirty-four thousand dollars a year for "watching cuts,"
and fifty-five thousand more for removing slides that should never have
taken place. Everything is done for the moment, and nothing thoroughly. Who
can wonder that this system tells upon the cost of maintenance of way?

The amount of fuel burned is the exact measure of the resistance to be
overcome, and a rough track must necessarily require a larger amount of
fuel. The English roads now generally burn bituminous coal; most American
roads burn wood; but these being reduced to the same equivalent quantity,
it will be found that the American roads burn nearly twice as much as the

That the cost of the repairs of American cars and engines is not more is
attributable solely to their superior design. An English engine and cars
would be battered to pieces in a few months on our rough roads, on account
of their rigidity and concentration of weight; while those of America, by
yielding to shocks both vertically and horizontally, escape injury.
American cars and engines are as much superior in design to the English as
their roads excel ours in solidity and finish.

But it will be asked, Shall we imitate the notorious extravagance of
British railways built at a cost of one hundred and seventy-three thousand
dollars per mile?

The answer is plain. The only thing about them to be imitated is their
thorough and permanent construction. That this need not involve
extravagance is evident from the fact that the actual cost of construction
has been only eighty-eight thousand dollars per mile of double-track
railway, including all the costly viaducts, tunnels, and bridges, which in
many cases a more judicious location or a bolder use of gradients would
have avoided. The remainder of their cost is made up of law and
Parliamentary expenses, engineering and management, land and damages,
interest on stock, bonuses, dividends paid from capital, etc., etc.,
amounting to eighty-five thousand dollars per mile. The folly of all this
has been seen, and neither the financial nor the engineering errors of that
day are now repeated. To show that a better system prevails, it is only
necessary to state that between 1848 and 1858, 390 miles of first-class
single-track railway have been opened at an average cost of $46.692 per
mile, and in all that relates to economical maintenance are not inferior to
any in the kingdom.

Such railways as these, costing no more than our own, we would hold up for
imitation. How, then, do they differ from ours? or rather, what must be
done to put ours into the same condition of economical efficiency?

In the first place, stone culverts and earth embankments should replace
wooden structures, wherever possible. As fast as wooden bridges decay, they
should be replaced with iron; and if the piers and abutments require it, as
is too often the case, they should be rebuilt in a substantial manner.

The tubular iron bridge we do not recommend, on account of its excessive
cost. For short spans of sixty feet and under, two riveted boiler-plate
girders under the track make a cheap and permanent bridge, and can be
manufactured in any part of the country. For large spans there are several
excellent forms of iron trusses, Bollman's, Fink's, or, still better, the
wrought-iron lattice.

Cuttings should be widened, if not already wide enough, so as to admit of
good ditches along the track. The slopes should be dressed off and
turfed. This costs little, and prevents the earth from washing down and
choking up the ditches, and much of that terrible nuisance, dust.

The secret of all good road-making, whether railways or common roads, lies
in thorough drainage. Until our railways are well drained, it is of little
use to try to improve the condition of the track. "In an economical view,"
says Mr. Colburn, "the damage occasioned by water is far greater than the
utmost cost of its removal. The track is disturbed, the iron bruised, the
fastenings strained, the chairs broken, the ties rotted, the resistance and
thereby the consumption of fuel increased, and the whole wear and tear
greatly enhanced."

Next to drainage in importance is plenty of good ballast. The New-England
roads are well ballasted, as a general thing; but in the West, where gravel
is scarce, they do not trouble themselves to find a substitute. Even the
great New York and Erie road, after ten years' use, is only half ballasted,
which accounts for its being more than half worn out.

Much has been said and written on the necessity of a good joint for the
rails, and many are the inventions for securing this object, - "compound
rails," "fished joints," "bracket chairs," "sleeve joints," etc., etc. But
without better road-beds no form of superstructure will last, and with
road-beds as good as they ought to be almost any simple and easily adjusted
arrangement will answer well enough.

But a more important matter than all these, so far as the economy of
maintenance is concerned, is the quality and shape of the iron rails,
forming one-eighth of the whole cost of our railways. Where companies,
instead of buying rails, are selling bonds, they have no right to complain,
if the iron turn out as worthless as the debentures. But where they pay
cash, they can insist on good iron, and will get it, if they will pay the
price, which will rule from eighteen to twenty dollars per ton over that of
the poorest article. Nor should the shape and weight of the rail be
overlooked. Experience, that stern schoolmaster, has taught us, that, while
heavy rails of seventy pounds to the yard, and over, of ordinary iron, go
to pieces in three or four years, sixty-pound rails of well-worked and good
iron will last more than double that time. The extraordinary durability of
the forty-five pound rails made for the Reading Railway Company by the Ebbw
Vale Company in 1837 is well known to railway men.

A short calculation will show the superiority, in point of economy, of
light and good rails to heavy rails of an inferior quality. A seventy-pound
rail requires 110 tons to the mile, costing, at 860 per ton, $6,600. At the
end of four years this has to be re-rolled at a cost of $30 per ton, or
$3,300 more. This is equal in eight years to an annual depreciation of
$1,237 per mile. A sixty-pound rail requires 94 tons to a mile, costing for
the best iron that can be rolled $80 per ton, or $7,520 per mile. This
would last eight years, and the annual depreciation would be $940 per mile,
or $297 less than the other. The 30,000 miles of American railways are thus
taxed annually nearly nine millions of dollars for preferring quantity to

In England, it is the custom to retain the best engineering talent upon
railways, after as well as during construction. In this country, as soon as
the engineer has made out his "final estimate," he is dismissed with as
little ceremony as a daylaborer. We employ the best mechanical engineers
that we can find to look after the repairs of our engines and cars; while
the road, which is more important, and upon the good condition of which we
have seen that the success or failure of a railway as a commercial
enterprise may depend, is handed over to some ignorant fellow whose only
qualifications are industry and obedience.

There are no unmixed evils in this world. The impecuniosity of American
railways, besides causing the bad results which we have described, has had
a good effect upon the training of American engineers. Being obliged to do
a great deal with a little money, they have steered clear of those enormous
extravagances which have characterized the works of such engineers as the
late Mr. Brunel, colossal less in proportions than cost. It has been well
observed, that there was more talent shown on a certain division of the
New-York and Erie Railway, in avoiding the necessity for viaducts, than
could possibly have been exhibited in constructing them. This remark is a
key to the difference between the old English and the American systems of
civil engineering. The one is for show, the other for use. We say the _old_
English system, because a better practice has now arisen. Cost is looked to
as well as splendor; and there is no engineer now in England whose
reputation, would sustain him in constructing such monuments of
extravagance as the Great Western Railway or the Britannia Bridge. American
civil engineers have not been fairly treated. The wretched construction of
many of our railways, and the uneconomical condition of all, have been cast
against them by their English brethren as a reproach. But the faults of
construction, we have shown, are attributable to another cause. No engineer
of standing would lend himself to many of the schemes that have been pushed
through in the West. But in order to build a "cheap" road, it is only
necessary to get a "cheap" engineer, and that is a commodity easily picked
up. If their ignorance and blunders tarnish the fair fame of the
profession, it cannot be helped. But if American engineers of standing had
been allowed to finish the railways begun by them, and to take care of them
and see that they were not abused after they were finished, our railway
securities would be quoted at higher rates than they now are.

Although there are many civil engineers of standing and experience who have
been thrown out of employment by the general stoppage of public works, and
who are better qualified to take care of that costly and delicate machine,
a Railway, than men whose knowledge is entirely empirical, yet few railways
employ a resident engineer. Those that follow this practice are generally
supposed to do so because he is a relative of some Director, and wants a
place, and not because such an officer is really required.

"Construction accounts," says Mr. Colburn, "can never be closed, until our
roads are _built_. To attempt it only involves a destruction account of
fearful magnitude. Under our present system, we are _perpetually
rebuilding_ our roads, not realizing the _life_ of our works, and thereby
running capital to waste."

"With good earthwork, thoroughly drained, well-ballasted tracks, rails of
good iron, correct form, not exceeding 60 pounds per yard, and properly
supported at the joints, the ties properly preserved, and the whole
maintained by a judicious system of repairs, the average working expenses
might unquestionably be reduced by as much as 18 cents per mile run."

The mileage of the Massachusetts railways for 1859 was 5,949,761 miles run,
and the expenses of operating $0.93, being a saving of 15 cents over those
of 1856, amounting to $892,464. If, by a judicious expenditure of $5,000
per mile, a still further saving of 18 cents per mile run could be made, it
would amount, on the present mileage, to $1,070,956 per annum, which, the
receipts being equal, would return eight per cent. on the increased capital
of sixty-eight and a half millions of dollars.

* * * * *

We have thus shown the combined effects of financial mismanagement and
imperfect construction upon our railway property. But there is a third evil
to be cured before it can become productive.

Under the present system of railway management, everybody is busy getting
rich at the expense of the stockholders. Railway men are as honest as the
average of mankind, but there is no reason why they should be more so; and
if their temptations are greater, a certain percentage of them will
inevitably yield to those temptations, - just as statistical tables show
that the average number of arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct
is greater on Sundays and holidays than on working-days.

A few years ago it was impossible to compare the results of the working of
one railway with those of another. The returns were so ingeniously made
out, that only one thing was certain, - the amount of dividend that it
pleased the Board of Directors to declare. If this was three or four per
cent. for the half-year, the stockholders were delighted, and passed a vote
of thanks to those worthy gentlemen for devoting so much valuable time to
their interests gratuitously. What if a dividend was not earned? it was
easy enough to raise money in Wall Street on the Company's paper, until
some excuse could be found for a new issue of bonds or stock. But those
benefactors of the human race, Tuckerman and Schuyler, put a stop to all
this. After their proceedings became public, and still more certainly after
the crash of 1857, if railways did not earn a dividend, they had to say
so. This led to investigations, and stockholders became "posted," as the
phrase is. Chiefly by the exertions of one newspaper, the "Boston Railway
Times," railway companies were shamed into giving their reports in such
form as to distinguish the expenses per mile run, for fuel, oil, repairs of
road, machines, etc., etc. This gave a common standard of comparison; and,
as we have seen, it was made use of to discover in what particular
departments English railways were worked more economically than our
own. This has led, as we have also seen, to a great reduction in the cost
of operating; and the revival of railways, as an investment, dates from
that time, 1857-8.

But there is something more wanted yet. As we have said, railway men are
not out of the reach of temptation. Let the various officers of a railway
manage it so as not to exceed the average expense of other roads of their

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 32, June, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 20)