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Running Out of Steam: Federal Inspection and Locomotive Safety, 1912–1940

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2007

Mark Aldrich*
Mark Aldrich is Marilyn Carlson Nelson Professor of Economics Emeritus, Department of Economics, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063. E-mail:


Locomotive inspection was among the most important Progressive Era federal workplace regulations. Inspection rules were enforced by a new Bureau of Locomotive Inspection, which claimed credit for subsequent safety improvements. Relying on published and unpublished data this article assesses these claims. Literary sources suggest that the bureau achieved compliance by emphasizing regulatory benefits and that its activities sharply reduced locomotive defects through the 1920s, in part by reducing agency problems. A model for 1923–1932 reinforces this conclusion, but suggests that the safety gains came at high cost. After 1932 safety improvements stagnated, for inspection ran out of steam.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 2007

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