Atlas Shrugged: Signal Passed at Danger

Atlas Shrugged, p. 20-25

The first of the novel’s protagonists whom we meet is Dagny Taggart, the operating vice-president of Taggart Transcontinental and, as we quickly learn, the power behind the throne that keeps the railroad running. Actually, we first meet Dagny in a flashback, although not by name. She’s a childhood friend of poor, tragic Eddie Willers, who reminisces about her thusly:

He thought of a summer day when he was ten years old. That day, in a clearing of the woods, the one precious companion of his childhood told him what they would do when they grew up… When he was asked what he would want to do, he answered at once, “Whatever is right… Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains.” “What for?” she asked. [p.14]

Keep in mind: this is one of the heroes of this book, and her attitude is one we’re meant to admire and seek to emulate. This will probably be something you’ll have to keep reminding yourself of.

When we first meet Dagny properly, she’s on an overnight train, heading back to New York from a business meeting.

Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body. [p.20]

We’re told that she hasn’t slept in two nights, which is treated as only a minor inconvenience; Randian protagonists treat such things as annoying distractions from what they really love to do, namely spending time at the office. But what does inconvenience her is when she nods off briefly, only to find that the train has been diverted into a side track and has been stuck for an hour at a stop signal, waiting for the red light to change. Dagny jumps up and runs to the engine car, where she berates the train crew for doing what common sense and prudence would seemingly dictate:

“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. [p.23]

The crew suspect, as does Dagny, that the signal is broken and isn’t going to change, but they intend to leave the train sitting where it is until someone gives them permission to move. The text alludes to the obvious point that going through a stop signal could be dangerous, but the strong implication is that the main reason they’re doing this is to avoid any possibility of blame:

“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 until somebody tells us to.” [p.23]

Now, I’m not a railroad engineer, but it seems to me as if the crew are the ones in the right here. Although the text paints them as being cowardly and unreasonable, I’d think this is what a good driver should do. If a signal on the line tells you to stop, even if there’s no obvious reason, does it really sound like a good idea to just decide it must be broken and proceed through it?

There could be any number of good reasons for a stop signal, even one that stays red for an hour. Maybe there’s a broken or damaged rail up ahead, something that would be almost invisible in the darkness, or a stuck switch that would have diverted the train into a dead-end or unfinished section of track. Dozens of deadly train collisions and derailments have been caused by train crews who missed or ignored a stop signal, including one of the worst in recent history, a head-on collision between two trains in Los Angeles in 2008 that caused 25 deaths and dozens of serious injuries.

In the end, Dagny pulls rank, identifies herself and orders the train to proceed through the signal. Because this is Atlas and the protagonists are never wrong, we’re not meant to think of this as a foolhardy and dangerous decision. We’re meant to admire her for her bold and daring decisiveness while everyone else stands around helplessly wringing their hands – “the hard, exhilarating pleasure of action,” as the text puts it.

But what it actually shows is that in Rand’s world, there’s an author on board, arranging events so that her dashing capitalists are always right, even when they make decisions that in reality could easily prove disastrous. (Can you imagine the newspaper headlines? “22 Dead in Train Collision Caused by Railroad Executive Who Didn’t Want To Be Late For Meeting”?) Since many people take Atlas as a guide for how they should act in reality, you can start to see the danger of this book.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • dr

    Of course, much later we are expected to feel the opposite, when whoever-it-is insists that the steam train proceeds into the tunnel, despite the inevitable certain death outcome.

  • Loren Petrich

    I’ve had experience with being stuck in a siding a few times. Once when that happened, I soon saw the reason why. A train passed in the opposite direction, and my train then continued on the mostly-single-track line it was on. Yes, single-track — that’s very common for low-traffic lines, even for moderately busy intercity ones.

  • MNb

    “If a signal on the line tells you to stop”
    I like this. It shows how outdated the novel is. In The Netherlands it is literally impossible to run a train through a red signal. Dutch trains have security systems to prevent the very possibility. What’s more, every signal post has a telephone so the engineer can find out what has happened.
    The “dilemma” Rand describes simply is not there.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    This is going to be a recurring theme as we go forward. Not just Dagney Taggert’s insufferable selfishness and disregard for safety, but the overwhelming evidence that Rand, uber-capitalist icon, has no clue how “Industry” works. This scene is just the tip of an iceberg of cluelessness ahead of us. At this point in the book I was forced to question whether Ayn Rand had ever actually ridden on a train before she decided to make her Mary Sue a train magnate.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision.

    Maybe her jaw was wired shut.

  • Jeff

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but as I recall, it took more than Dagny pulling rank to get the train to move. She had to assure the engineer that if anything went wrong, he would be held blameless and she would accept responsibility. This blame business is a recurring theme throughout the book, with pretty much every antagonist, bad guy, or extra being primarily concerned with not being held responsible if their actions have negative consequences.

    As it happens, the only actions that *do* have negative consequences (or at least negative consequences that are not necessary to preserve Rand’s idealized moral system) are the ones that are performed by the antagonists/bad guys/extras. The protagonists are frequently willing to accept blame and scorn for what they do, but that point is entirely moot because they never actually do anything that would result in blame or scorn. Which is idiotic, because at the time this book was written, there were already countless real-world examples of terrible things worthy of blame and scorn that had been the result of wealthy industrialists acting in pure self-interest. Pretty much the entire 19th century, really, especially once the industrial revolution was in full swing.

  • http://robertnielsen21.wordpress.com Robert Nielsen

    Seeing as Rand has the freedom to create any situation for her heroes, its strange that she choose this one. Seeing as train and plane accidents are usually caused by people pushed for time ignoring dangers, my sympathies are with the workers. Red lights are their for a reason, and ignoring them doesn’t make you an innovative capitalist. It makes you a reckless fool willing to endanger people’s lives for minor reward.

  • smrnda

    I’m a programmer. Dagney is acting like an idiot. There are reasons for safety protocols which are *supposed* to be adhered to against the ‘better judgment’ of geniuses who KNOW that their special trains never run on time. There are tons of examples of brilliant engineers and corporate leaders (BP in the gulf people?) who are SURE that drilling at such a low depth using unproven technology just ISN’T a problem. “No, we don’t need to worry about fixing things down there. We KNOW they won’t break!” Rules are there to keep geniuses who think they know better from causing disasters. If you want to move the train and you think the signal is broken, then fix the signal. Test your hypothesis. Anything else is irresponsible.

    You want to know how else Dagney is an idiot? She just ASSUMES she knows why the signal isn’t working, and (because Ayn Rand never bothers herself to actually learn about any body of knowledge or actually research the validity of assumptions) and doesn’t bother to investigate anything. Before you act on a belief, whether it’s about trains or anything else, figure it out.

    I’m a software engineer. When I see a bug, I realize that if I go “hm, why is this happening?” I’m not going to figure out anything unless I actually debug the code. It’s a totally mindless procedure because an ego and a big brain makes people think they’ve figured out things when problems aren’t really fixed.

    The thing I hate most about Rand’s works is that she’s depicted the world falsely but people take her depiction to be accurate. I’m sorry, but we don’t base public policy or ethics on what goes on in fiction, since authors get to distort reality to suit their needs. I’m not saying that fiction can’t be a vehicle for social commentary, but it’s also a tool for deceptive propaganda.

  • smrnda

    I wanted to add. I have rules at work about code being tested before it being pushed to production. I follow these rules as well as anybody I might manage or hire. If I was a Randian protagonist, I’d be pushing all my own code to production, error free, without any testing. Of course, this never happens in the real world because even the best people aren’t that good, but it works for her propaganda points, so she depicts a false level of competence for her experts.

    Believe me, I’ve seen very good programmers make incredibly trivial errors that cause lots of damage. The type of over-confidence her protagonists have are a liability, not an asset.

  • Bob Jase

    Well doggone, now I know what railroad Casey Jones must have been working for – he was an egineer after Dagny’s inflexible precise heart.

  • http://Www.insomniaclibertarian.blogspot.com Bruce Majors

    Another hilariously crapulent piece on Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand, which is what little leftover nerds seem to do now when they want to drive traffic to their websites, a form of whoring, pay per view gang rape of a dead woman’s corpse for asexual boys who live on the net.

    It’s interesting to observe that the docudrama United Flight 93 has exactly this kind of behavior that you want to suggest is uncommon and a fabrication by Ayn Rand: FAA and DOD bureaucrats stand about with thumbs in assholes while telling each other no one has authority to tell planes to stop flying, until after plane number two crashes into the World Trade Center. But then, every piece of your review is beyond retarded levels of reading non-comprehension and instead outright blindered based fibbing. Her heroes tend to want to spend time in laboratories and factory floors and train tracks, inventing and building things, for example. It’s the government and corporate statists villains, including bailed out multinational CEOs, who want to spend time in their offices.
    You are simply a silly quisling liar, which makes your pretense of atheism a giant joke. You worship a God, a reified fiction called Government, and you defend his theocratic priests and their crimes against humanity.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.wordpress.com James Jarvis

    Rand’s books are the capitalist equivalent of the Left Behind series.

  • Kat

    @Bruce Majors: Nice example of an ad hominem attack.

    Theorizing and research, collaboration and research, caution and research, testing and more research are how science is done. This is not a bad way to deal with most of what life tosses your way. Currently there’s a brouhaha going on in Italy around governmental restrictions on stem cell therapies: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/28/us-italy-stemcell-idUSBRE92R0UD20130328 Would you have those in their offices (bureaucrats and regulators) leave all such decisions to the capitalists alone? With no oversight? If so, I’ve got a bridge/cancer cure/equity fund you might be interested in…

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What an honour! I would have thought that a giant like Bruce Majors would be too busy spending time in laboratories and factory floors and train tracks, inventing and building things, for example; to grace us with his presence.

  • Infophile

    @Bruce Majors: Don’t fucking trivialize rape by comparing it to an unfavorable book review. Even as hyperbole, there’s simply no comparison, and the fact that you might think otherwise reveals just how twisted your worldview is.

  • Bdole

    You worship a God, a reified fiction called Government, and you defend his theocratic priests and their crimes against humanity.

    You should don a sandwich board with that statement printed on it. But, only after you’ve grown out a grizzled beard.

  • Azkyroth

    Another hilariously crapulent piece on Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand, which is what little leftover nerds seem to do now when they want to drive traffic to their websites, a form of whoring, pay per view gang rape of a dead woman’s corpse for asexual boys who live on the net.

    It’s interesting to observe that the docudrama United Flight 93 has exactly this kind of behavior that you want to suggest is uncommon and a fabrication by Ayn Rand: FAA and DOD bureaucrats stand about with thumbs in assholes while telling each other no one has authority to tell planes to stop flying, until after plane number two crashes into the World Trade Center. But then, every piece of your review is beyond retarded levels of reading non-comprehension and instead outright blindered based fibbing. Her heroes tend to want to spend time in laboratories and factory floors and train tracks, inventing and building things, for example. It’s the government and corporate statists villains, including bailed out multinational CEOs, who want to spend time in their offices.
    You are simply a silly quisling liar, which makes your pretense of atheism a giant joke. You worship a God, a reified fiction called Government, and you defend his theocratic priests and their crimes against humanity.

    Ladies and gentleman, the case for Libertarianism.

  • Randy Robbins

    You should change your bio to”atheist writer and hater of all things Rand.” The contempt for every sentence is too thick to take seriously. Get over it already. You’re not fighting some grand conspiracy. It’s just an old outdated book.

  • David Hart

    Trouble is, it’s not just an old outdated book, it’s an old outdated book that quite a lot of people seem to take seriously as a basis for social and economic policy (see also: the Bible). It’s worth taking a little time to point out the flaws in a book if that book is actually being used as an inspiration for policies that would cause real harm.

    The day that the acolytes of Ayn Rand have as little influence over public policy as those of any other randomly selected fiction writer is the day that her books will cease to be worth debunking.

  • 2-D Man

    Shorter Bruce Majors: because a second plane was part of 9/11, we should all run red lights.

  • Daniel McHugh

    Let’s just drive a few thousand tons of steel or so through a red light and hope there’s not a few thousand tons of steel bearing down on us in the opposite direction with enough combined force to telescope one train completely into the other (seriously, look this up… or don’t, it’s utterly awful) before the whole twisted, mangled mess finally comes to a stop. What could possibly go wrong? What’s the threat of a horrifying rail disaster- that could kill dozens of people and cause the whole line to be shut down for days (if not weeks), delaying thousands of commuters, possibly millions of tons of cargo, causing the loss of a substantial amount of revenue for not just the railroad but every company it serves, directly or indirectly- compared with the possibility of a single VIP special being held up while somebody comes out to check the signals? Perhaps it might be worth considering that if one signal is busted, maybe more could be? Minor details, minor details. Nevermind the action that might be taken against the railroad and the train crew by the NTSB or its Randian equivalent (if there even is one) simply for having ignored a signal in the first place, which somebody with such an important position probably should have taken into account… though I suspect Rand would have derided anything of the sort as a draconian attempt by the parasitic government to interfere with the sovereign rights of the noble corporation. Sigh.

    For a top-level corporate executive, that lady sure doesn’t spare much thought to the potential consequences of her decisions… then again, that might just make her the finest representation of top-level corporate executives in print. Huh.

    The train buff in me has suffered a mild concussion from slamming his head on the desk.

  • Azkyroth

    The contempt for every sentence is too thick to take seriously.

    1. You’re projecting.
    2. Rand, her philosophy, and her cultists are contemptible. This is like making fun of someone for squinting when walking out of a dark building into the bright sun.

  • Improbable Joe

    From reading this section, you can tell that Rand isn’t someone who has ever done any work that by her own philosophy would make her worth existing. She doesn’t even seem to personally know any of those useful people, or have any idea what those people do in real life. She’s just making shit up from her writing desk, based on what would have to be true to make her philosophy work in real life, which makes the whole thing irrational, illogical, and nonsensical.

    What this passage reminds me of is my time in the Marines, whenever some really new officer would show up and try to make sweeping changes based on some management book or a seminar they attended or something they half-remember from OCS. They would invariably ignore the advice of the folks who had been doing the job in the real world for sometimes over a decade, because clearly officers are the important, wise ones because their insignias are shiny. And then things would go terribly wrong, the officer would blame everyone else but themselves and have a little temper tantrum, and then things would go back to the way they were before. “I’m the boss, just do it” only works in libertarian fantasy. In real life it only avoids disaster by accident.

  • Squiddhartha

    If I’m the engineer on that train, I’m not worried about going through that red light because of the blame that will accrue to me, I’m worried because I’m *in the pointy end of the goddamn train*.

  • smrnda

    I just realized I missed the stupidest action of Dagney Taggert. She assumes the signal is malfunctioning and orders the train through. She does not at any point in time attempt to verify this hypothesis experimentally. Any piece of signal equipment that’s properly designed should have some means for testing available. A theory about a possible faulty signal is the starting point of inquiry, but not the end.

    The other thing is a faulty signal needs to be replaced immediately. I ride the train a lot in different cities – if a signal is out the trains are halted until the signal is fixed, since properly functioning signals are necessary. What happens when the signal goes wrong again? Just work under the assumption ‘the train always runs on time?’ Why even have signals then?

    To address the pro-Randian. I do not worship the government any more than I worship the anti-epiliptic medication that I take. I take the meds since without it, I’d be pretty well screwed. I view the government as an unglamorous but necessary thing since self-reliance is a fiction, and people tend to overestimate their own competence and virtue. Regulations occasionally fail, but a total lack of regulation would cause far more failures. Also in a society where people have different levels of power, the law has to mediate the inevitable conflicts of interest. Workers are disposable commodities for employers. The law should protect workers. Everybody is willing to say their product works after a single positive test result since there’s less incentive to research potential negatives unless they kill the customer outright.

    The problem with Rand’s *heroes* is that they aren’t realistic. They never make mistakes. All of their judgment calls end up being correct.

    I mean, yeah, I’m a software engineer. I’m lucky enough to be privileged enough to do a job that gives me something interesting to think about. My life isn’t possible without the existence of the proletarians since we haven’t made work obsolete. In Rand’s worldview, only work(for money) has any value, so the idea of a ‘life outside of work’ is just never explored. People are entitled to have some time to sod off, particularly the proles who get stuck doing jobs which aren’t particularly pleasant. I don’t want to spend 90 hours a week *innovating* either. I like to have a life. Rand simply ignores anything that goes on that isn’t part of a workplace, which is a pretty shallow view of life.

  • A Hermit

    It’s worth noting at this point that the fascist dictator Mussolini’s claim to fame at one time was that he “made the trains run on time…”

    He didn’t really, but it’s interesting that he and Rand share the same fantasy…

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    you can tell that Rand isn’t someone who has ever done any work that by her own philosophy would make her worth existing.

    Rand, to my knowledge, never ran any kind of business, so she was promoting an idealized vision of something she had no real understanding of.

    @ Randy Robbins, Paul Ryan, a sitting Congressman and 2012 candidate for Vice President praised the impact that Rand had on him and he stated that he gave Atlas Shrugged to all of his staff members to read.

  • smrnda

    On Rand never running a business. Writers can write about things they didn’t do personally, but this requires research, and you only do research when you’re willing to admit that there are things that you not only don’t know, but that you can’t figure out through speculation. If you’re writing about railroads, you’d better know how they really work. Realistic fiction has to be realistic. Rand’s work is about as unrealistic as Middle Earth, but it’s taken by some to be ‘realistic’ simply because you don’t run across a Hobbit.

    And no excuses that it’s ‘fiction.’ It’s meant to be social commentary, and if you’re attempting to make social commentary, you’re obliged to make your work pretty true to life.

    I’ve always taken this scene – where the schedule that says the train is on time is ‘real’ and the signal is just something to be ignored to show us something about Rand’s thinking process. The mental world (the schedule) is real, and the signal (the actual world) is ignored since we know what the schedule says. Things are not true just because they are written on paper.

  • Keith Collyer

    @Bruce Majors: as ad hominem attacks seem to be acceptable to you, you are a twat

  • Azkyroth

    @Bruce Majors: as ad hominem attacks seem to be acceptable to you, you are a twat

    He has neither the warmth nor the depth.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    @Azkyroth. That’s beautiful, I’m stealing that for whenever anyone misuses that word.

  • James Yakura

    You are simply a silly quisling liar, which makes your pretense of atheism a giant joke. You worship a God, a reified fiction called Government, and you defend his theocratic priests and their crimes against humanity.

    Said the alleged atheist who goes around singing praises to the flawless justice and absolute benevolence of an invisible hand.

  • ffakr

    My first thought was,..
    Shorter Bruce Majors: Because no-one had the guts to order the grounding of all aircraft after the first one struck the tower, the other flight which was already in the control of terrorists didn’t land at JFK instead of slamming into the other tower.
    If only Ayn Rand was around to show those moocher Terrorists what-for!

  • pbrower2a

    What Dagny does is even bad business. Much of executive function is assessing risk and reward for their decisions. There are always consequences for breaking the normal behavior, one of which is the potential for new profits. The other big consequence is disaster ad even ruin. Gut feelings are just not good enough with technologies on the large scale — technologies that involve electricity, hazardous chemicals, or motive force — or with the realities of accountancy.

    Government is the only institution that can punish people for corrupt and reckless deeds that hurt people and ruin asset-owners without becoming a lynch mob. Maybe in an ideal world the perpetrators of the Enron scandal would have committed collective seppuku in collective shame for gambling on others’ money and getting corrupt gain from horrible mismanagement of wealth. But that is not how the world works.

  • http://www.smat.us/ Smattus

    Good call about the train signal – while it works as a dramatic thing (I’m sure Rand loved the spice of risk it added) it’s irresponsible railroad operation.

    But that’s the thing about Rand – it’s always been about the emotional charge. The verbiage about reason is just a magician’s trick to hide her reliance on emotional arguments as evidence. As a college kid I loved the way she made me feel good about being smart and rational. But the whole point is to make rational decisions, and she’d rather be right than rational.


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