Peter Heinegg

Who doesn’t love trains? Okay, automakers, airline execs, gas station owners and such. But even if the railroad is not, as the British transportation journalist and lifelong train-fanatic Christian Wolmar claims, the most important invention of the second millennium, it is hard not to be awed by it. Trains did change the face of the planet; they are the cleanest, greenest, most efficient and comfortable form of travel; and not incidentally, their near-disappearance from passenger service in the United States is one of the country’s besetting woes.

In addition to his eight earlier books on trains, Wolmar is also a television and radio commentator, blogger and pundit. If there is anything he does not know about the history, technology, geography and financing, or the social, political and military impact of railroads, it is not readily apparent. His prose is pedestrian rather than winged; but like one of the later-model steam engines that might have been more sensibly replaced with a diesel, it pulls you through.

Wolmar devotes the bulk of his labors to the epic tale (that overused adjective is unavoidable here) of the century from the celebrated first running of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in September 1830, to the mid-1930s or so, when locomotives began to be swept aside by trucks, buses and cars. Over that period something like 900,000 miles of track were laid across every continent but Antarctica. For every one of those miles, at least one man gave his life, as rivers were bridged, mountains tunneled, jungles and deserts crossed amid the most horrific conditions, from cholera to yellow fever, from landslides to explosions, from enraged natives to marauding lions. Incredible fortunes were made (like those of the Central Pacific’s legendary plutocrats Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington), and spectacular crimes of looting both public treasuries and private investors were committed right and left by men Wolmar likes to call “fraudsters.” Laborers like the Chinese in the Far West slaved away on what was far and away the greatest construction project the world had ever seen.

To follow all the particulars of this transformation—which include incompatible gauge problems, bond-issue problems, nationalization problems—can be less than enthralling for readers who don’t happen to share Wolmar’s intoxication with, say, Canada’s Grand Trunk Pacific, Australia’s north-south Aghan or Angola’s Benguela railways. But the pace picks up with an indispensable chapter on the “railway revolution,” a survey of the incalculable number of ways that trains reshaped human life: creating hitherto unimaginable wealth, altering (and generally improving) people’s diets, challenging the class system, inventing tourism, standardizing time, invading pristine environments and facilitating the mass slaughter of modern wars. It unified nations, none more than the United States, and strengthened central governments. It made huge sporting events possible and even promoted pilgrimages to places like Lourdes. It drove underground and remade urban life, as “downtowns” grew up around central stations.

And then along came Mr. Ford and his friends. Though still invaluable for hauling the cheaper sorts of freight, like coal and wheat, after World War II trains took a terrible hit from the automobile, with its door-to-door convenience, and the airlines, with their unbeatable globe-hopping capacity. Service in many places dried up or disappeared. In the United States as of 1930 75 percent of passenger traffic was by train; by 1970 it was 7 percent. But then in Japan and Europe along came high-speed (186 m.p.h.) electric trains, which dashed the competition, except for long-distance flights. Who knows, maybe someday the United States, which still tops the world in total railway mileage with 155,000, will get its act together and lay down lines of the sort (TGV) that can zip you from Paris to Marseille in three hours. These high-speed trains do not need imported oil, and there hasn’t been a single fatal accident.

Given his gigantic subject, Wolmar inevitably has to skim many topics, such as the grim role of the Reichsbahn in transporting Jews to Holocaust death camps, thereby taking hundreds of trains away from the military, or the role of trains in popular and high culture, from Anna Karenina’s suicide to whistle-stop campaign speeches to innumerable movies and songs. Wolmar does mention Murder on the Orient Express (where no such murder occurred), and cites Wordsworth’s baleful response to a projected railroad into the Lake District. He ignores, however, the humorless great man’s turnaround in “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” where he wrote that “Nature doth embrace/ Her lawful offspring in Man’s art.” Nature, in England and elsewhere, had little choice.

For many reasons, trains are a subject drenched in nostalgia, so it is no surprise that Wolmar’s chronicle ends as an editorial touting the “railroad renaissance” currently under way, even while wistfully asking, “Would it have been better if transport technology had atrophied at the turn of the century and the car had never come to dominate the world?” Wolmar takes the answer for granted, and many Americans in his audience will doubtless agree—excepting the usual petroleum-pushing, gasoline-addicted, Nascar-cheering suspects.

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.