Ayn Rand was obsessed with railways, which she saw as symbols of progress. Although when ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was published in 1957, air travel was already making inroads into its long-distance market and buses were beginning to dominate for shorter journeys, she was not enough of a prophetess to anticipate future travel patterns. It is therefore not surprising that so much of the action in the novel centres around a railway, or that some of its most famous passages focus on a rail disaster – the death in the Winston Tunnel of everybody on board the Taggart Comet.
In the book, the blame was placed not only on the corrupt politician who insisted that the train should be pulled through the tunnel by a coal-burning locomotive, but on a culture that dictated that not one of the people who could and should have prevented the disaster had the courage to do so. At the root of it all was the abandonment of Dagny Taggart’s precautionary principle, which had demanded that a spare diesel locomotive be always kept in readiness at the tunnel. But, as Eddie Willers said, once Dagny had gone, things were different under her replacement.
“….. I pleaded, I told him that she had made it our strictest rule that Winston Station was never to be left without an extra Diesel. He told me to remember that he was not Miss Taggart— as if I could ever forget it! – and that the rule was nonsense, because nothing had happened all these years.
The Odisha train crash. More than 260 people died because of a signalling fault.
That was the beginning of the disaster, because, of course, things happened that meant the extra diesel was needed. And, as the influential politician who was determined to be on time for his meeting told the station staff.
“— it’s not my problem how you get the train through the tunnel, that’s for you to figure out! But if you don’t get me an engine and don’t start that train, you can kiss good-bye to your jobs, your work permits and this whole goddamn railroad!”
So, the messages went back to Dagny’s brother in New York.
Who passed the buck down to the man who had replaced her.
Who passed the buck down to the superintendent of the Colorado Division.
Who passed the buck down to the local trainmaster and the road foreman.
Who passed the buck to the night despatcher.
Who passed it down to the station agent at Winston.
Who managed to find a drunken blowhard of an engine driver who boasted that he could take the train through, even if no one else dared to.
Who killed everyone aboard, including himself.
A cautionary tale well told; one might think. And all because Dagny had been replaced, and her precautionary principals had been abandoned.
…………….. she was just as willing to abandon that principle, when it suited her to do so.
Consider an earlier episode in “Atlas Shrugged”.
[Dagny] awakened with a jolt, knowing that something was wrong, before she knew what it was: the wheels had stopped. The car stood soundless and dim in the blue glow of the night lamps. She glanced at her watch: there was no reason for stopping. She looked out the window: the train stood still in the middle of empty fields.
She heard someone moving in a seat across the aisle, and asked, “How long have we been standing?”
A man’s voice answered indifferently, “About an hour.” The man looked after her, sleepily astonished, because she leaped to her feet and rushed to the door. There was a cold wind outside, and an empty stretch of land under an empty sky. She heard weeds rustling in the darkness. Far ahead, she saw the figures of men standing by the engine— and above them, hanging detached in the sky, the red light of a signal.
She walked rapidly toward them, past the motionless line of wheels. No one paid attention to her when she approached. The train crew and a few passengers stood clustered under the red light. They had stopped talking, they seemed to be waiting in placid indifference.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
The engineer turned, astonished. Her question had sounded like an order, not like the amateur curiosity of a passenger. She stood, hands in pockets, coat collar raised, the wind beating her hair in strands across her face.
“Red light, lady,” he said, pointing up with his thumb.
“How long has it been on?”
“An hour . ”
“We’re off the main track, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know.”
The conductor spoke up. “I don’t think we had any business being sent off on a siding, that switch wasn’t working right, and this thing’s not working at all.” He jerked his head up at the red light. “I don’t think the signal’s going to change. I think it’s busted.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Waiting for it to change.”
In her pause of startled anger, the fireman chuckled. “Last week, the crack special of the Atlantic Southern got left on a siding for two hours- just somebody’s mistake.”
“This is the Taggart Comet,” she said. “The Comet has never been late.”
“She’s the only one in the country that hasn’t,” said the engineer.
“There’s always a first time,” said the fireman.
“You don’t know about railroads, lady,” said a passenger. “There’s not a signal system or a dispatcher in the country that’s worth a damn . ”
She did not turn or notice him, but spoke to the engineer.
“If you know that the signal is broken, what do you intend to do?”
He did not like her tone of authority, and he could not understand why she assumed it so naturally. She looked like a young girl; only her mouth and eyes showed that she was a woman in her thirties. The dark gray eyes were direct and disturbing, as if they cut through things, throwing the inconsequential out of the way. The face seemed faintly familiar to him, but he could not recall where he had seen it.
“Lady, I don’t intend to stick my neck out,” he said.
“He means,” said the fireman, “that our job’s to wait for orders.”
“Your job is to run this train.”
“Not against a red light. If the light says stop, we stop.”
“A red light means danger, lady,” said the passenger.
“We’re not taking any chances,” said the engineer. “Whoever’s responsible for it, he’ll switch the blame to us if we move. So we’re not moving till somebody tells us to.”
“And if nobody does?”
“Somebody will turn up sooner or later.”
“How long do you propose to wait?”
The engineer shrugged. “Who is John Galt?”
“He means,” said the fireman, “don’t ask questions nobody can answer.”
She looked at the red light and at the rail that went off into the black, untouched distance.
She said, “Proceed with caution to the next signal. If it’s in order, proceed to the main track. Then stop at the first open office.”
“Yeah? Who says so?”
“Who are you?”
It was only the briefest pause, a moment of astonishment at a question she had not expected, but the engineer looked more closely at her face, and in time with her answer he gasped, “Good God!”
She answered, not offensively, merely like a person who does not hear the question often: “Dagny Taggart.”
“Well, I’ll be—” said the fireman, and then they all remained silent. She went on, in the same tone of unstressed authority. “Proceed to the main track and hold the train for me at the first open office.”
“Yes, Miss Taggart.”
“You’ll have to make up time. You’ve got the rest of the night to do it. Get the Comet in on schedule.
Those stories could so easily have been reversed. The drunk could have made it through the tunnel and been the hero of the hour. Ignoring the red light could have put the Comet into the path of the Freight Special loaded with explosives that put the final seal on the Winston Tunnel disaster
But that, of course, was not how Rand wrote it. Disasters were not for the anointed few, whatever risks they ran with their own lives or those of other peop