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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.

Q. How did life change?

A. Obviously, you could suddenly travel long distances quite easily. If you lived in a smaller city or town, you could travel 100 miles to a big city for business in a day, whereas before railroads that trip could well take a week. It changed life in other ways as well. People in New York and London suddenly had access to fresh milk, for instance. No longer did you have the sad situation of cows being kept in cellars in the middle of the city.

Q. How did people use their new freedom of movement?

A. Among other things, it really enabled the holiday industry. Here in Britain, around the late 1840s or 1850s, you started getting connections to seaside resorts. Before that, not many people were able to visit the sea.

Q. Trains have this aura of something out of the past. Do they really have any advantages today over other forms of transportation?

A. They have great advantages. One driver can take a couple hundred containers on the back of one train, whereas it would take 200 trucks. That’s 200 fewer trucks on the road, and a great savings of fuel, among other things.

Q. What about for passenger travel?

A. For people traveling by train, it’s a fantastic way to travel—far superior to cars in that you can sit down, read a book, look out the window, and not get exhausted just trying to get where you’re going. In London we have 3 million journeys a day on the London Underground system. If all those people got in their cars, it would be permanent gridlock.

Q. You write about the profound political effects of railroads. What were they?

A. Railroads were a unifying force for European nations. Neither Germany nor Italy were unified countries before the advent of railways. In both cases they helped create those nation states. In Belgium, they were seen as an important way of guaranteeing independence from Holland, from which the country had just broken away a few years previously.

Q. What about in the United States?

A. In America in particular, railroads are a fundamental uniting force. They started out allowing faster travel in the East and the South, but when they made that big jump across the continent, linking the two coasts, they became more important even than railroads were to Europe. They really created a United States that stretches from sea to sea.

Q. It’s interesting that a country that was such a leader in railroad development today has such an underdeveloped rail system.

A. The first major railway was in Britain, and much of the technology and practices that would be used around the world developed there, but it’s true that the United States quickly became the leader. At its high point, America had one-third of all the rail mileage in world. That’s not the case any longer, of course.

Q. Why do railroads in other countries so dramatically surpass those in the United States?

A. It’s part of a cultural ethic. It requires a strong state involvement to make intercity railways viable, and that hasn’t happened in America, where there’s always been a laissez-faire attitude toward railroad development. America realized that too late, and tried to compensate by creating Amtrak.

Q. You’re no fan of Amtrak.

A. Amtrak is a sad political construct. It could probably work more effectively if it weren’t so involved with pork barrel politics. It’s really a great shame. There’s no reason to spend that much money to run one train a day across the country, but there are places in America that have great potential for a really efficient high-speed rail system, if you only had proper investment.

Q. Like where?

A. From D.C. up to Boston is a perfect candidate for a dense intercity network. It has Amtrak’s Acela service now, but that has its problems. Track conditions really limit the speed of the trains in most places. There are perhaps parts of the West Coast and Midwest as well where passenger rail could be expanded.

Q. Any sign that anything is changing in the United States?

A. It’s a cultural thing. The Europeans have invested in high-speed rail, but until now America has not been willing to do that. But Obama has announced a big rail program, and perhaps now that will be reversed in a very historic way, and maybe America will get the rail program it needs.

Chris Carroll lives in Maryland.