Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World--from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

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9780143126348: Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World--from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

An epic and revelatory narrative of the most important transportation technology of the modern world

In his wide-ranging and entertaining new book, Tom Zoellner—coauthor of the New York Times–bestselling An Ordinary Man—travels the globe to tell the story of the sociological and economic impact of the railway technology that transformed the world—and could very well change it again. From the frigid trans-Siberian railroad to the antiquated Indian Railways to the Japanese-style bullet trains, Zoellner offers a stirring story of this most indispensable form of travel. A masterful narrative history, Train also explores the sleek elegance of railroads and their hypnotizing rhythms, and explains how locomotives became living symbols of sex, death, power, and romance.

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About the Author:

Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Uranium, winner of the 2011 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award, and coauthor of An Ordinary Man. He teaches at Chapman University in southern California and lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PENGUIN BOOKS

TRAIN

INTRODUCTION

Twenty years after I saw her, I still remember the young woman across the aisle from me on a train through a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. She was half visible in the overhead lamp, wearing a college sweatshirt and holding an open book on her lap. Whatever she was reading was making her cry softly. I couldn’t see the title and I was too shy to ask, but the sight of her wiping away tears—emotionally transported into one world as she was physically transported in another—made me feel my individuality dissolving.

Snowflakes struck the dark windows without a sound, but unseen wheels hummed, and outside realities could be subsumed for a while in this linear realm of motion and warmth, five hours from Pittsburgh and nowhere in particular. We were standing perfectly still, yet moving over parallel lines of steel, and she seemed like a ghost in the dim light. I can’t ride on a train at night without remembering her, wishing I had talked to her, strangely grateful that she remained a cipher.

Railroads anywhere, but especially in America, have the power to invoke odd spells like this, a feeling that might be called Train Sublime: the tidal sway of the carriages, the chanting of the wheels striking the fishplates (to me it sounds like dear-boy, dear-boy, dear-boy), the glancing presence of strangers on their own journeys and wrapped in private ruminations. These secret pleasures of a railroad summon forth a vision of a sweet pastness, a lost national togetherness. The train is a time traveler itself, the lost American vehicle of our ancestors, or perhaps our past selves.

We live in a society that was made by the railroads in ways we never think about anymore: our imported food, the beat of our music, our huge corporations and their methods of stock financing, our strong labor unions, our abstract notion of time and our sense of everyday connection with people who may live far out of sight but are made neighbors through mechanical means. Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks.

But in the light of the modern world, trains are not nostalgic playthings—not by any measurement. They serve unromantic needs and hard economies.

On an average weekday morning, approximately 100 million people across the world are boarding trains: from Paddington station in London, from the magnificent Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, from the tawdry and run-down Tirana Railway Station in Albania, the Baltazar Fidelis platform on the Jundial line outside São Paulo, the flying saucer of Beijing’s sparkling new South Station, tiny one-room depots or lonely platforms scattered in the countryside all over Argentina, Belgium, South Africa and Japan and eighty-six other nations, to say nothing of the 13 trillion tons per kilometer of cargo they haul each year. Global commerce would instantaneously crash without them.

And passenger trains are still alive and breathing even in America, though we have sacrificed most of them in favor of the long-haul plane ride and interstate car travel. A quasi-federal agency called Amtrak has kept overland trains in a state of reliable mediocrity since 1971, and it was on the creaky old Pennsylvanian when I first spotted the woman in the snowstorm. At least two dozen major cities have working commuter rail tentacles out to their suburbs—about 3 percent of Americans use them to get to work, mainly in the Northeast. I am one of those 100 million who ride the train as a matter of routine. And I do it from the famously car-happy city of Los Angeles.

My trip to my workplace takes a reliable forty-seven minutes, and I don’t do it as an act of rebellion against the oil companies or as an ideological protest against my car. I do it because it is relatively cheap and it saves me from the freeway. And while I usually tote a book, I more often stare out the window at one of the truly ancient vistas of California: a corridor lined with pipe-fitting yards, crinkled tin warehouses, oil pumpjacks and homeless encampments.

Anyone who rides an American train can see that old industrial hardpan where the money is made without pretense and which was often—especially in the West—the first line slashed on the map before any major population showed up. And in this case, it’s the tracks of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe that came through in 1885 to steal some orange-hauling business from the Southern Pacific. This right-of-way is now leased by Metrolink, a perfectly decent commuter rail line that runs to three counties and is shockingly underused. When I tell people I take the train to work, I often get a confused look. Is that even possible? And then a look of envy. You can read. You can do work. You can listen to your iPod.

All of those things, yes. But the clacking motion of the train, the way it shudders as if being pulled by a spinnaker sail—its uncanny, unlikely grace—often compels me to watch the old light-industrial panorama spool past, and I feel transported into a lulling sense of mystery, a sense of past and present merging into a single continuum. This is a private feeling, but on the train one is almost never alone.

“The world was so much smaller than we thought,” wrote Charles Dickens at the dawn of the railroad era in Britain. “We were all connected. . . . People supposed to be far apart were constantly elbowing each other.”

The very first rail passengers felt a sense of oceanic awe, even verging into dread, at their first sight of a train. A locomotive was the world’s first true “machine” ever put on wide public display—a golem of gears that made loud gasps of expiration much like an animal’s breath. Watching it creep forward came as a shock to the psyche, for this wagon was not pulled by a living animal, which would have been readily understandable. This was a grotesque and ghostly apparition. When crowds gathered in 1825 to watch the debut of the world’s first real railroad—the Stockton & Darlington of northern Britain—the correspondent from the Morning Herald reported that multiple spectators “fled in affright” from the locomotive and others looked at the train with a “vacant stare,” as if in a trance.

This experience was repeated thousands of times. Wherever the train would be introduced, observers responded with confusion and even horror. The editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer saw crowds “dumbfounded at the strange and unusual spectacle” with “distended eyes” in 1846. Another newspaper said witnesses at LaSalle, Illinois, “stood dumb with amazement” when the first engine of the Illinois Central came through. “Many of them looked as though they had come out between the shakes of the fever and ague,” noted the reporter. The Bengal Hurkaru newspaper said the test of a locomotive near Calcutta astonished nearly all present with “its snort and its whistle and its fiery speed.” Some made motions to bow and worship. Others considered the whistle “the voice of a demon” and believed that its sound would curdle milk, its smoke would kill birds and its vibrations dry up women’s fertility.

Such a startling device required an entirely new word. In the mid-1820s, British journalists settled on “train,” a word derivative of the vulgate Latin traginare, “to drag along,” which had first entered the English language four centuries prior during the reign of Elizabeth I, who used to dazzle her subjects with royal parades through London streets.

The queen had only been borrowing from an older ritual of procession that dated to Babylonian emperors and has been used by leaders ever since to create a theater of power. Generals of the Roman Republic who had won a major battle were granted a lavish parade to the Temple of Jupiter. In the fourth century, Christian monks began to make a slow, trainlike movement through their chapels, accompanied by the bearers of crosses and candles. This kinetic mode of worship is present in today’s Catholic and Anglican masses, and wedding parties still march toward the altar in ceremonial “train,” which is also another name for the hem of the bride’s dress.

The linear motion of a train is as fascinating to the eye as the flames of a campfire. The University of Chicago professor William McNeill noticed an odd sensation while he marched in a trainlike formation during World War II. “It has occurred to me that rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principle external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” The hypnosis of the moving line, McNeill wrote, put him in a state of euphoria like that of early infancy. And now this primitive shape so special to the subconscious was powered by a beast that appeared to be alive itself, with a protruding nose, stack wheezing a white breath, boilers thrumming like a giant metal heart, and the pistons pumping like legs; a stout little man, a machine-king.

Riding on this vehicle brought another wave of incomprehensibility. Never before in human history had people been able to travel without the use of an animal or a boat or their own muscles. And here was the countryside passing at a steady rate of fifteen miles per hour, a speed that was fascinatingly alien to the consciousness. Searching for any comparison that would make sense, journalists determined that a locomotive was traveling at one-quarter of the velocity of a cannonball on the battlefield. Excited merchants in America and Europe began to pool their financing to connect their own cities and villages to the grand colossus of new tracks, but when the school board in Lancaster, Ohio, received a request to let a classroom be used for a chartering meeting, the official response was this: “If God had designated that His intelligent creatures should travel at the frightful speed of 15 miles an hour, He would have foretold it through His holy prophets.”

No object out the window could be watched for very long. Trees, flowers, houses, horses, waving children—all of them receding as quickly as they were seen, gone down the backward-spooling time funnel. Travelers complained of headaches and nervousness, plus a new condition that doctors came to call “railway spine,” a disorder resembling fibromyalgia that nagged at people long after they disembarked. “The rapidity and variety of the impressions necessarily fatigue both the eye and the brain,” reported the British medical journal Lancet in 1862.

The flickering quality of the landscape made the foreground virtually disappear and brought a new method of “seeing” into the vocabulary of the brain. In many ways the advent of the railroad in the mid–nineteenth century helped prepare humanity for the coming of the motion picture at the end of the century. Henry David Thoreau noticed the accelerating speed of life even inside his cabin on Walden Pond, where he could not avoid hearing the daily passing of the Boston & Maine:

The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?

The world has since accelerated to a velocity that would have astonished Thoreau. Gargantuan amounts of data are sent around the world in a millisecond, a kind of magic that staggers the imagination as much as the first sight of the train had startled the residents of Darlington in 1825. Yet underneath that electronic skin coating the world is a stubborn physicality—and a constant need to move people and things from place to place. The best tool for this purpose known to humanity does not require any reinventions.

The remarkable efficiency of rail is why nations like Spain and Korea have spent billions of dollars on a new generation of high-speed trains to get citizens from home to work: a mammoth savings of fuel. China has built a network of these same trains linking all corners of its vast territory, and Saudi Arabia is finishing a line to speed pilgrims to Mecca. Transportation planners have known for decades that rail corridors are far more elastic than roads for handling increases in population: they don’t choke up as quickly, they require far less maintenance and they can be more easily plowed into city centers than can a new freeway.

The American economy, meanwhile, is more dependent on overland rail transportation than ever before: an average freight train can carry the contents of about 280 trucks by burning far less oil. About 40 percent of the national cargo is carried on trains, which are envied around the world for their efficiency. Smooth wheels sliding down a smooth artery of steel is a trick of physics that remains the best-known way to move heavy material. A train is like a broom or a hammer: an object of elegant and simple design that never became obsolete. The farmers and merchants of the early nineteenth century were amazed that a long string of heavy carriages could carry up to twenty thousand tons of whatever material they desired. That function still powers the world.

And yet the value of trains remains obscured. The train suffered a blow to its image during the highway-building phase of American history, and it is still regarded as a charming antique, an object of art for eccentrics and a last resort for the poor. Approximately 98 percent of the American public has never set foot on a city-to-city train.

An incident out of Maryland could function as a parable here. A track crew for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was digging a trench in August 1898 when a worker’s shovel glanced across bone-white stone, too large and too smooth to be any ordinary piece of granite. The workers brushed away the dirt and saw it was a carved marble block about the size of a steamer trunk. Several layers of roadbed fill had been tossed over it and packed down by decades of spring rains. The block had been lying at a depth of six feet. Tombs of Egyptian pharaohs have been found lying closer to the surface. They brushed more dirt off the marble block and read an inscription on the side: FIRST STONE OF THE BALT & OHIO RAIL ROAD.

Here was a truly embarrassing discovery. Executives soon certified what the track crew suspected: this was the ceremonial cornerstone that had been laid on July 4, 1827, amid speeches, sashes, whiskey and marching bands to mark the launch of what had been America’s first true railroad.

On that day the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, had been persuaded to put on his top hat and knee breeches and come out to make what proved to be the last speech he ever delivered. He was one of the richest men in America, a prominent lay Catholic and a plantation owner who had introduced a bill in the Maryland Senate calling for a gradual end of slavery (though he never freed his own slaves), and he had also strong-armed the B&O’s charter through the same body—an act o...

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