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Working on and around trains was so dangerous during the second half of the 1800s that Congress, in 1893, passed one of the first national occupational safety laws specifically to lower the number of deaths and dismemberments from crashes, derailments, rollback accidents and falls from locomotives and rail cars. That law, which is commonly referred to as the Safety Appliance Act, remains in effect to this day.

About 15 years later, passage of the Locomotive Inspection Act further clarified what constituted the bare minimum for safely equipping and maintaining rolling stock. The century-old laws, which have been updated a few times since first being enacted, still spell out the legal duties that railroads such as Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern have to protect their train crews.


The official title of the Safety Appliance Act is “An act to promote the safety of employees and travelers upon railroads by compelling common carriers engaged in interstate commerce to equip their cars with automatic couplers and continuous brakes and their locomotives withdriving-wheel brakes, and for other purposes.” Its major provisions require putting power brake controls inside the locomotive, outfitting all cars with automatic couplers, attaching “secure grab irons or handholds in the ends and sides of each car,” and standardizing the height for rail car drawbars throughout the United States.

The Locomotive Inspection Act consists of just a few lines, stating

A railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts and appurtenances–

  • are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury;
  • have been inspected as required under this chapter and regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation under this chapter; and
  • can withstand every test prescribed by the Secretary under this chapter.

Both laws factor heavily into the work my railroad injury law firm colleagues and I do on behalf of our clients in cases brought under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act. FELA makes a railroad strictly liable for paying medical bills and paying other types of monetary damages to rail employees who suffer injuries because the company failed to comply with a safety law. In practical terms, when we can prove to a jury that a violation of the Safety Appliance Act or Locomotive Inspection Act led to our client’s on-the-job accident and temporary or permanent disability, we win the FELA case.


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