Saturday, April 7, 2012

Blood, Iron, and Gold

Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World
© 2009 Christian Wolmar
376 pages

Outside of the wheel, the railways may be the single most influential form of transportation ever invented by human beings. This is a bold claim, but one encouraged by this excellent and engaging survey of rail transport's effect on human history. Originating in Britain, railways took the world by storm, crossing continents and knitting the world together with roads of irons. The rails became the backbones of economies, the skeletons on which new nations like Germany and Italy grew; economies were transformed and empires created to the sound of a steam whistle. The modern world is unthinkable without them, and even though the rise of automobiles and aiprlanes may have dimmed our appreciation for them, author Christian Wolmar believes trains are posed to make a well-deserved comeback.

Blood, Iron, and Gold is an ambitious and exciting work, spanning nearly two centuries and covering the birth and evolution of a worldwide transport system, one which leaves virtually no part of human society untouched: in attempting to relay their importance, Wolmar writes on war, politics, food, religion, economics, and industry on almost every continent. Despite the sheer breadth of this narrative, it's never overwhelming; he succeeds in maintaining a cohesive, fairly tight narrative throughout. While it bounds in fascinating trivia (Spain's first railways were built not in Spain, but in Cuba: the first transcontinental railroad was constructed by the United States,  but not in north America),  the true value of the book (beyond sheer entertainment value, which for me was through the roof) lays in the perspective it adds to the development of powerful nation-states and industrial economies in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The railways' integral role in the unification of Germany and Italy has been mentioned, but rails were also part of the fabric of British imperialism. The United Kingdom's position as a pioneer allowed it to wield an incredible amount of influence over the development of rails across the world, exporting engines, cars, drivers, planners, and even gauge standards; the metric of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is curiously ubiquitous. In Russia, the Trans-Siberian railroad provided an exercise in state planning on a massive scale, one which Wolmar believes influenced succeeding Soviet governments.  Wolmar doesn't shy away from the negative legacy of railroads -- the exploitation of labor to build them, the political corruption surrounding them in the United States, their use as a tool of the state to quickly put down riots -- but remains an enthusiastic supporter of the technology, both because of what they've done for us, and what they will continue to do. Railroads are our past, he writes, but also our future.

Our past; our future; but not quite our present. At the present moment, cars and planes reign supreme. Wolmar's history follows rail lines into the 20th century, as they begin losing traffic to their competitors, and examines why they failed to compete more effectively. The long attachment to steam technology is part of the reason, Wolmar believes: not only was this a technology companies were long used to, but one they had an enormous amount of capital already invested in. Diesel and electric engines were new and unproven, and without a guarantee of success, few companies were willing to take the leap of faith that was required of them. Throughout the history and his analyses, Wolmar is delightfully moderate. He scorns neither the free market nor centralization and central planning: nations and rail companies have experimented with both throughout their history with rails, and either alternative might be the best in a given situation. Despite the fact that railway transportation has been in decline -- especially tragic in the United States -- Wolmar believes that is on the mend. Not only are steadily rising oil prices making cars and airplanes look like an abysmal bargain compared to efficient rail lines,  but decades of increasing car ownership have resulted in unmatched congestion and sprawl; automobiles are increasingly unpopular. These views are not Wolmar's alone: in the United States, private rail companies are itching to get back into the passenger business, and for the first time in a half-century the cities are growing and the car-dependent surburbs shrinking. As oil becomes increasingly dear,  the human race is rediscovering the value of one of its best inventions.  I live in hope that I will see a rail renaissance in my own lifetime. For now, I shall read this book again and again to experience the triumphs of the past and imagine what future glories await.

Absolutely superb book: exciting, informative, and timely.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Making of the Transcontinental Railroad, Stephen Ambrose
Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back, Jane Holtz Keay

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