22 JANUARY 1853, Page 15


Tin recent fatal accident on the Buckinghamshire branch of the North-western Railway, the verdict of the Jury fastening a charge of manslaughter on one of the servants who at the worst did no more than share the general want of system in his conduct, and the somewhat rambling discussion which has followed, show that no public body has yet grappled with the subject ; though it is one which demands prompt and decisive settlement. We talk with alarm of invasions by foreign enemies, and we suffer an enemy to await us on our highway with the most murderous ambush called "accident"; and yet we have hitherto no effective inter- vention either from the Executive or the Legislature to protect us against this species of highwayman. Better views, however, are struggling into existence ; and when Parliament shall take up the subject, there will be at least the materials for a proper decision. Amongst those who exemplify confusion of ideas mingled with in- telligent and practical suggestions, is "A Railway Director," who writes in the Times "A-Chapter on Accidents." A large propor- tion of his letter is intended to show that accidents are inevitable ; since trains cannot be punctual, their rate of speed cannot be cal- culated, qualified engineers cannot always be found, the effect of the atmosphere on the speed cannot always be reckoned, and dis- cipline cannot be enforced without impairing the judgment or dis- cretion of an engineer. The arguments advanced in support of these positions are familiar acquaintances, and are not very im- posing. They might all be taken to establish our own position— that in calculating the movements on a line of railway no sufficient margin is allowed. The Railway Director himself admits that " collision " might be rendered impossible ; and we have contended for no more. But his practical suggestions are worthy of at- tention.

The signals to indicate' caution or danger by the exhibition of different coloured boards or lamps, in themselves equivocal, are still 'more equivocal in their mode of use ; as the present case showed. They confound general and particular indications : for example, a signal indicating "danger" or "caution," exhibited at the swing-bridge near the Oxford station, was intended to apply to the bridge only ; but it is evident that it was sometimes under- stood to apply to the general state of the rail : so that the inter- pretation was rendered a matter of uncertainty—of conjecture for the moment. Again, the distinction between the coal-train and the goods-train, a white or a green light, is not strongly nor posi- tively marked enough ; and the mistake of Kineh the guard shows that the two signals may be confounded. The Railway Director suggests, that instead of acting on signals of the kind, a train should not be permitted to pass any point without a positive as- surance that the next section of the line is free. In other words, the assumption should not be safety, subject to a signal of danger, but the assumption should be danger, subject to a distinct assu- rance of safety by signal. This is a useful suggestion, and it ought to be amongst those adopted ; but it is evident from the history of the Oxford accident, that something more is wanted. It is not the engineer alone who determines the moving or standing of a train ; the guard is sup- posed to have a superior authority. But in the Oxford case every- body showed that there is an habitual disregard of all the es- tablished rules. The engineer either moved without orders, or acted upon a supposed order from Einch the guard—the utterance of the words "All right," which might mean anything. No sys. tern of signals could be sufficient while the conduct of a train is thus subject to the conflicting and heedless direction of several people, station-master, guard, engineer, and others.

The Railway Director presumes that if stricter discipline were enforced, the "discretion" of the responsible servant would be superseded ; men would become "mere machines," and accidents would be as numerous as ever. Now, this argument is based on several assumptions. One is, that the orders need be very com- plicated; an assumption which is refuted by his own suggestion respecting the awaiting of signals. That principle alone would suffice to secure safety for the conduct of each train were authority in the hands of one officer. Another assumption is, that strictly subordinate discipline supersedes discretion ; whereas we all know that every officer in the Navy is bound to exercise discretion according to the best of his judgment. If a sailing-master were to occasion the less of a ship, the perverse plea of having literally. " obeyed orders" would not exonerate him, if a literal obedience violated the general trust reposed in his knowledge laid ability. A third assumption is, that the offence against the public consists in the fatal results of an accident; whereas it consists in the dis- regard of precautions for the safety of the public. A breach of these precautions is the offence which ought to be checked on the railway. The Director "sees no reason" why a man should dis- regard orders, especially when his own personal safety is involved; whereas daily experience refutes that presumption. It is necessary to establish some rule to prevent wilful violation of duty by punishment.

Two other suggestions by the Director are valuable. One is, that excessive speed cannot be reduced to safety ; and we believe it at least to the extent of holding that permanent ways much better constructed than any which we possess are necessary before the high rate of speed used for the most expensive trains can be safe. The other suggestion is, that Government should exercise a more efficient supervision than it does, laying down fundamental rules to be observed on all railways; prohibiting, for example, the use of a single line for trains going in opposite directions; and en- forcing the observation of simple rules.

These, we say, are useful materials for practical reforms. Deo- dands are discontinued; verdicts of manslaughter are superseded by the loose state of evidence at the trial ; and the public at pre- sent is without protection. Parliament must introduce order into the system, and the Executive must be brought up to the duty of enforcing order. That will be done. The only question is, how many more lives must be sacrificed before Parliament and Govern- ment can feel the necessity for interference P