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The History and Future of Railroads

Christian Wolmar, author of "Blood, Iron and Gold," on how trains changed the world and why the U.S. isn't seeing their greatest potential benefits.

If you’ve ever gotten annoyed at the meal service, or lack of it, on a cross-country flight, consider the plight of passengers a century ago traversing Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad, the greatest transcontinental rail project of them all. As they rolled east toward Vladivostok, nearly 6,000 miles from their starting point, the crews stubbornly kept serving meals on Moscow time—until passengers were finally sitting down to a mid-afternoon breakfast, and digging into a hearty dinner at 3 a.m. Heartburn aside, they were still far better off than travelers of just a few years earlier, when the same journey took not weeks, but months of far more arduous travel.

Little details like this are half the fun of British transportation writer Christian Wolmar’s sweeping new history,Blood, Iron, and Gold: How Railroads Transformed the World. (Read an excerpt here.) He’s got an epic subject to work with. From their start in England in 1830, railroads spread like kudzu across the globe. They unified countries, created great fortunes, enabled the growth of new industries, and thoroughly revolutionized life in every place they ran. Yet the human tolls for some projects were ghastly, with deaths of native laborers running into the tens of thousands.

Wolmar doesn’t avoid these horror stories. But in his telling, trains ultimately emerge as forces of human progress. Though they’ve been eclipsed by automobiles as a means of travel—particularly in the United States—Wolmar predicts a resurgence. Not only are they more fuel-efficient, but as roads become ever more crowded and lines at airports grow, he writes, “Rail travel in modern trains is more attractive and pleasant than any other means of travel.”

He spoke recently with theAARP Bulletinabout the pleasures of train travel, and the past and future of the world’s railroads.

Q. A railroad—two rails, anyway—physically doesn’t look all that impressive. But you tell some surprising stories about what it took to lay down those rails in places around the world.

A. These were huge, unprecedented undertakings, and the stories of how they got built are quite dramatic. One of the most memorable and saddest stories is the building of the Panama railway. Not many people are aware of it, but it was the first transcontinental railway—very significant in its day. It’s just a little 50-mile railway through the jungle, but I estimate 6,000 lives were lost building it—around 120 people per mile.

Q. How did that happen?

A. It was built by a combination of Caribbeans, Irish and Chinese. What happened is that most of them died, except for the Caribbeans, who were immune to the tropical diseases. The most poignant thing I uncovered in my research was the fate of many of the Chinese workers. They were cut off from home, in difficult conditions, and many were going through opium withdrawal. They committed suicide en masse, in some cases asking other workers to cut off their heads with their machetes, or by simply walking into the sea.

Q. I didn’t learn about that in school.

A. You hear more about the work of the Chinese on the American railroad. Not long after the episode in Panama, they made a fantastic contribution to building the transcontinental railroad across North America, which changed everything for the United States.

Q. Did railroads really, as your subtitle puts it, transform the world? Didn’t they just speed things up somewhat?

A. It’s no exaggeration to use the word “transform.” You have to put yourself back in the perspective of people before the iron road. No one had traveled faster than a horse could gallop, and going more than 20 or 30 miles was a long journey.

Q. How quickly did all this occur?

A. It was rather quick. Within a short period of time from the beginning of the railways—in 20 to 30 years—you had tens of thousands of miles of track crossing the North American continent. People’s entire sense of the geography of places changed, and distances took on different meanings.

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