Friday, March 19, 2010

(Steam) engine of modernity

Christian Wolmar's
Blood, Iron and Gold: How Railroads Transformed the World takes readers on an intercontinental trip around the globe

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network website.

It is easy for many of us to overlook the role the railroad has played in everyday life for the past 175 years. But it is difficult to overstate its impact. What the Internet has been to the 21st century, and the automobile was to the twentieth, rail was to the nineteenth. In the United States and virtually everywhere else on the planet, locomotives were literally the engines of modernity. It is no exaggeration to say that rail remade the world, and this epic global story is ably retold with notable concision by British railroad historian Christian Wolmar.

Wolmar's story begins, as any story ineluctably bound up with industrialization does, in Great Britain. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830, constructed in large measure to move the two fuels of British imperial power, cotton and coal, was followed with great interest at home and abroad. The boom that followed was not always even -- accidents, engineering problems, political conflict and financial chicanery were always part of the picture -- but no actual or figurative bust could impede a trajectory of explosive growth. Britain led the way, and indeed went on to build and/or finance much of the rail infrastructure in the world, but the United States and continental Europe were never far behind.

Wolmar notes that despite the striking degree of consensus among these competitors that rail did indeed represent the future, the hallmark of this story is diversity. This is true on the most fundamental level: technological considerations like the width, or gauge, of railroad lines varied widely for a panoply of economic, environmental and political reasons. Some nations, principally the Britain and the United States, relied on the private sector to build railroads, but inevitably government involvement proved necessary in the form of financial assistance and regulation, if not management. Others, like France, viewed rail as a political resource from the outset, and conceptualized a network as a means of advancing state interests, whether in terms of stitching together regions, assisting military operations, of both. Germany, a disorganized region of central Europe at the start of this story, nevertheless created a patchwork system with striking rapidity; Otto von Bismarck was content to have it in private hands until his rapid victory over France in the Franco-Prussian convinced him that rail was too important a resource not to be under government control.

Yet utilitarian considerations cannot solely explain the mania for railroad building across the world -- at least not in any obvious sense -- and nowhere is that mania more striking in the series of transcontinental railroads that were built across the globe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The best-known, and most obviously necessary, was that of the United States. But enormous projects were undertaken in Russia, South America and Africa (the Cairo-to-Capetown line was a seeming exception in not being realized) without any real likelihood that they would be regularly traversed from end to end. They nevertheless made a tremendous impact in multiple directions wherever they went.

Actually, Wolmar is at his most arresting in describing the cultural impact of railroads, in ways that range from the creation of the tourism industry the transformation of urban diets. Not all these changes were positive; ecological devastation, for example was rampant (though, he argues, not nearly as bad as that wrought by the automobile). Railroads were implicated in the peculiarly deadly dynamics of World War I; since advancing armies typically entered destroyed terrain and defending ones could bring help directly to the front, successfully offensive operations were difficult to achieve. Tanks and aviation displaced rail in visibility during World War II, but the Holocaust would have been impossible without it. Still, even as he acknowledges these horrors, Wolmar believes rail has done more good than harm. He notes that in the case of Mexico, for example, a network was built at the behest of dictator Profirio Diaz for his own interests, yet“railroads were forced to recognize the rights of local people, despite the central government's attempts to ride roughshod over them.”

The conventional wisdom holds that rail went into decline in the years following the First World War, but Wolmar insists this is not the case, noting that total railway mileage continued to grow through World War II, particularly in places (like Asia) where its reach was not widespread. Although it unmistakably retreated in terms of passenger service in the United States, rail continued to be of vital importance for carrying freight there and elsewhere. And at the very nadir of rail’s fortunes, the opening of the high-speed Tokyo-Osaka line in 1964 opened a new chapter in rail as a form of passenger transportation. China, now the nation on the cutting edge of modernity, is building railways of stunning speed with stunning speed. The United States, which lumbers along with a significant commuter infrastructure in the northeast, and a truly lame Amtrak, can continue to neglect or ignore rail at its peril.

In these and other ways, Blood, Iron and Gold makes for an illuminating and useful excursion. It’s a book that should be read with as much interest by the Internet maven as it is the rail enthusiast as a case study in the global history of technology.