Train Rides Drove People Mad
When steam locomotive passenger trains first entered service in the 19th century, there were widespread fears that their speed would prove lethal to passengers. New locomotives, such as the pioneering Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, were capable of maximum speeds of 28 m.p.h. Quite slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds.
The perceived risk of such unprecedented velocities was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers theorized that human physiology was simply not adapted to and capable of withstanding travel at speeds faster than those of a galloping horse. Anticipating the concerns about G forces in the era of powered flight, train alarmists reasoned that passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially lethal results.
Such fears eventually receded, as railways and trains proliferated, with no reported fatalities from people getting their hearts or lungs flattened against their backs. They were replaced by another bizarre fear, this one of a danger to the mind instead of the body. By the 1850s, Victorians were worrying that the steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, were causing injuries to passengers’ brains, and driving people insane.
Sensationalist media did their part to whip up the frenzy. An illustrative example occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England. An armed passenger went crazy and started attacking windows to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern of going wild while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.
Newspapers and mental health professionals of the day linked his bouts of madness to train travel. However, instead of reasoning that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel was the cause of his mental illness. The belief persisted, well into the 20th century, that something about the speed or motion of trains drove people mad, and the pattern of flawed analysis, confusing causation with correlation, kept repeating itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a moving train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed for causing the craziness.