Speeding up death

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the main railway trades unions started complaining about ‘speeding up’: the intensity of work being increased, whether by more work being demanded in the same time or by the requirement operate bigger and more powerful machinery (particularly the locomotives). The unions concerned were the (brilliantly and entirely Victorian-named) Associated Society of Locomotive Enginemen and Firemen (ASLEF) and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS, which went on to become the key part of the National Union of Railwaymen, NUR, now the RMT). There was some concern that in addition to the physical strain it put workers under, it would lead to more accidents.

One case where some elements of this debate appear is found in the report of an investigation undertaken by John Main, into the death of boiler washer T George. George was killed at the Bassaleg Locomotive Shed of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway on 10 August 1911. As the engines – fires lit and ready for service – were being marshalled [moved about the shed], at about 7.30am it became necessary to move one of the locomotives out of the shed. George had been inside the shed and ‘attempted to get between the engine and the central supporting pillar [of the shed] just as the engine was started’ and so was crushed to death. The space he had been attempting to pass through was only three and ¾ inches wide. This type of casualty was one which featured in the accident prevention booklets the railway companies issued to their staff in the years after 1913.

Image from 1932 ‘Prevention of Accidents to Staff Engaged on Railway Goods and Cartage Work’

Main’s conclusion was that George knew the engine was about to be moved so ‘the accident result from his own indiscretion.’ At the same time, he also recorded that ‘the shed is an old one. Two years ago four engines of a larger type were put into service’ reducing the clearance between an engine and the pillar to three and ¾ inches. So, it seems that the drive to bigger, more powerful engines – ‘speeding up’ – might have been a contributory factor in this case. That said, Main also noted that even with the older engines there wasn’t sufficient clearance to pass safely between an engine and the pillar: ‘this can only be provided by dispensing with the pillar and widening the doorway, and the Company might be asked to consider the advisability of taking this course’ (1911 Quarter 3, Appendix B). This sounds expensive – something usually likely to deter a company for carrying out the recommendation, though whether the change was made before the shed was closed in 1929 I don’t know.

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