Monday, December 31, 2012

The Great Railroad Revolution

The Great Railroad Revolution: A History of Trains in America
© 2012 Christian Wolmar
448 pages

The United States’ history is one written with novelty: born in the dawn of the industrial age,  America was a blank slate for technologies with the potential to transform societies – technologies like the railroad. Rail historian Christian Wolmar sees the history of railroads and the United States as inextricably bound to one another: they came of age and rose to power together. Their mutual ascendancy is the source of The Great Railroad Revolution, a marvelous history of both.

The story of trains begins not in the United States, but in England, where cars on rails pulled by horses were used to transport coal relatively short distances. Early in the course of the industrial revolution, however, a series of inventions allowed for the complicated and powerful system of the railroads to be born. The United States' need for efficient inland transportation made it an early adopter of the rails, and as the young nation pushed west it did so under the puffing smoke and whistle of a steam engine. In Blood, Iron, and Steel, Wolmar demonstrated how important the rails were to economic development and expansion. Here, he's able to drive home the same lessons, but at the same time give more coverage to smaller topics. He devotes a chapter to the rails' role in the Civil War, for instance, and argues for his belief that they allowed the conflict to metastasize from a small dust-up into a continent-wide brawl that consumed the lives of millions, by giving both governments the technology they needed to shift massive armies across regions and keep them supplied with food and ammunition. In "Rails of All Kinds", he covers trolleys, which were the first form of public transportation, and even the short-lived interurban lines, which were electric trains connecting cities short distances apart. Although a rail advocate, Wolmar doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of the railroads' legacy like the abuse of power that companies held over farmers in the midwest, who lived so far from population centers that they were dependent on the railroads to get their goods to market.

Americans have a curious relationship with railroad companies, Wolmar writes, describing it as an affair that began passionately and ended with enthusiastic rejection. The book's final quarter tracks the decline of the railroads as a reaction against their abuses and subsidized competition from the automobile. The decline wasn't inevitable, but Wolmar sees the rail companies as hampered by the baggage of their own history. In spite of their rapid decline, though, the American system is still one of the largest,and the best means of moving freight across the company. His conclusion urges Amtak to adapt to changing circumstances and give up the thought of long-distance passenger transport, which he views as a waste of their precious resources. Far better to play to the rails' strength, which is freight and regional passenger transportation.

The ending is mildly disappointing: in this age of rising oil prices and the contraction of automobile-dominated suburban sprawl, the rail lines's future seems more promising than just freight delivery. Even so, this is a delightful history of the railroads in the United States, one that demonstrates that their fall to the cars wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Selected Bibliography:

The Transportation Revolution, George Rogers Taylor
 All Aboard: the Railroad in American Life, George H. Douglas
Passage to Union: how the Railroads Transformed American Life, Sarah Gordon
Enterprise Denied, Albro Martin
Railroads Triumphant, Albro Martin
Urban Mass Transit, Robert C Post
The Electric Urban Railways, George Hilton and John F. Due
Urban Mass Transit, Transport or Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Paul Mees

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