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Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain [Hardcover]

Christian Wolmar
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 Sep 2007
A Christmas hardback with tremendous sales potential. "Fire and Steam" tells the dramatic story of the people and events that shaped the world's first railway network, one of the most impressive engineering achievements in history.The opening of the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 marked the beginning of the railways' vital role in changing the face of Britain. "Fire and Steam" celebrates the vision and determination of the ambitious Victorian pioneers who developed this revolutionary transport system and the navvies who cut through the land to enable a country-wide network to emerge.The rise of the steam train allowed goods and people to circulate around Britain as never before, stimulating the growth of towns and industry, as well many of the facets of modern life, from fish and chips to professional football.From the early days of steam to electrification, via the railways' magnificent contribution in two world wars, the chequered history of British Rail, and the buoyant future of the train, "Fire and Steam" examines the social and economical importance of the railway and how it helped to form the Britain of today.This book is intended for fans of Simon Winchester, Peter Ackroyd, Adam Hart-Davis and Christian Wolmar's "The Subterranean Railway".

Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; First Edition edition (13 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843546299
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843546290
  • Product Dimensions: 3.5 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 253,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster, principally on transport matters. He writes regularly for a wide variety of publications including the Independent, Evening Standard and Rail magazine, and appears frequently on TV and radio as a commentator. His previous books include the widely-acclaimed The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London underground and Fire and Steam, a history of how the railways transformed Britain.

Product Description


'A lively new history of the world's oldest railway system... Fire and Steam tells a rollicking tale.'
-- Michael Binyon, The Times

'Marvellously informative... a book that has given me more pleasure than any I can remember in quite a while.' -- Rod Liddle, Sunday Times

`A wonderful account of how our railways came to be.'
-- Jon Snow

`Christian Wolmar brings the era of railway mania alive: both the imagination and the daring that made it possible.' -- David Dimbleby

About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster. He writes regularly for the Independent and Evening Standard, and appears frequently on TV and radio. His previous books include the widely acclaimed The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London underground and On the Wrong Line, an account of rail privatization.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
101 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent and 'Mature' History 13 Oct 2007
By Dr. R. Brandon TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This excellent book describes the complete history of the railways in Britain from the Stockton & Darlington, and the Liverpool & Manchester beginnings to the High Speed Rail Link into St Pancras for the Channel Tunnel. Wolmar writes with a clear and enthusiastic style which takes the reader on at a great pace and captures the excitement of the early pioneers. This is a 'mature' history book, and whilst it deals with virtually all the significant events in the history of the railways in Britain; the development of the lines, the companies and changing structure, the service during the two World Wars, and inevitably nationalization and privatization, it never becomes an 'anorak' book given to excessive technical detail or sentimentality. It is not an illustrated 'coffee-table' book. Wolmar's judgements on controversial aspects of railway history always appear clear and probably correct. An excellent and exciting read.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A really well written and interesting book full of little known, but compelling, facts. Ideal for anyone interested in the growth of the country's infrastructure. One does not have to be a railway buff to appreciate this book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant history of Britain's railways 21 Dec 2007
Christian Wolmar is the unrivalled expert on Britain's railways, author of On the wrong lines, a study of the dire effects of privatisation, and The subterranean railway, a history of the London Underground. He has now written a splendid history of Britain's railways `encompassing both their construction and their social impact'.

He celebrates the railways' achievement of opening up the world in an unprecedented way. He shows how the railways were both product and driver of the industrial revolution.

He takes the story from the world's first railway, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830. The building of the railways was by far the biggest construction feat of modern times and arguably the greatest in human history. The decade of the 1840s added 4,600 miles to the network, the biggest amount ever.

He looks at the development of the railway unions, the tremendous contributions of the rail service in the world wars and the mergers of the 200 railway firms down to the big four in 1923. But he also covers the continued story of underinvestment and governments' failure to appreciate the railways' economic and social valued.

At nationalisation, the Attlee government over-valued the stock and so over-compensated the shareholders. British Rail was lumbered with annual interest payments of 27 million (equivalent to 675 million today). In the 1960s the Conservative and Labour governments closed 6,000 miles of track, leaving 12,000, and closed 4,000 stations, leaving just 3,000.

The 1996-7 privatisation broke British Rail into a hundred organisations, divided between track and operations. It costs taxpayers 5 billion a year, far more than British Rail. Railtrack collapsed; the Strategic Rail Authority was abolished.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simply a very good read 22 Oct 2007
By Wilko
As other reviewers have described, this book rattles along at a good pace, never getting bogged down in too much detail. My only criticism would be that the subject actually merits a slightly longer book that explains more about some of the technical innovations in locomotive design and signalling and safety improvements. All in all though, highly recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A look at British railway history 30 Mar 2009
By Peter Durward Harris #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
In the preface, the author explains that this book attempts to combine a description of the history of the railways and their social impact in one easy-to-read volume. He concedes that this necessarily means omitting some developments that railway enthusiasts might normally expect to find in a conventional railway history book. For example, there is not a lot here about locomotive or other railway developments, though they have been well-documented in plenty of other books. The author wanted to illustrate the social impact that railways had, which has always been about much more than getting from A to B. Overall, I think it fair to say that the author has largely succeeded in his aims, although some aspects of the social impact are missing, just like a lot of the railway developments.

Much of the book focuses on the nineteenth century, which saw the birth of the railways and the development of the network. During this period, the politicians tried not to interfere in the running of railways once built, though they still had to sanction the building of each new line. Indeed, during the periods of most rapid development, parliamentary business was often dominated by legislation pertaining to railway construction. With the railways came a host of other problems involving safety of both staff and passengers, staff working conditions and a myriad of other issues. The twentieth century began with the railways in a dominant position, but the situation wasn't as bright even at the time as it is sometimes depicted. The first of two major wars (in which the railways played a vital role) began the long period of government involvement (some would say interference) in running the railways that has continued ever since.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A passionate history of Britain's railways 7 April 2010
Few inventions did more to change life in Britain than the railways. Since the establishment of the first steam-powered lines in the early 19th century, they demolished locality, lowered the cost of goods, and made cheap travel a reality for millions of Britons. Yet as Christian Wolmar shows, this transformation was hardly a smooth one, shaped first by numerous growing pains and then the vagaries of government policy. This history, and its role in shaping Britain's railway system today, is the subject of his book, which describes both how the railways changed Britain and how Britons, in turn changed the railways.

Wolmar's scope is a broad one, ranging back to the early gravity- and horse-drawn routes of the 17th century. Yet it is not until steam engines are introduced that the railways emerge as a prominent mode of transportation. While initially envisioned primarily as a means of moving freight, Wolmar notes that railways soon found transporting passengers to be their most lucrative source of revenue. Soon railways sprang up throughout Britain, and by the start of the twentieth century lines reached nearly every corner of the island. Yet dominance bred complacency, and the railways were slow to respond to the challenge posed by the emergence of road haulage in the early twentieth century. Hobbled by under-investment during the two world wars and handicapped by successive (and sometimes conflicting) government mandates, Britain's railway network was in decline by the second half of the twentieth century.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Published 1 month ago by bookworm
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Very informative
Published 1 month ago by D.Dimmick
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripe with Kindle version of "Fire and Steam"
An enjoyable book, but the Kindle version spoiled things for me, since the maps are not readable due to their small size. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Richard Austin
5.0 out of 5 stars Social History of Something Wonderful We Take for Granted
Christian Wolmar is pretty well ubiquitous (appearing on everything from Radio 4's Today programme to Portillos Great Railway Journeys) when a talking head is required to venture... Read more
Published 2 months ago by R. Newbold
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent History Mr Wolmar
Simply a very informative read. Straightforward history of railways in Great Britain since their first development right up to beyond privatisation. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jambo Ted
5.0 out of 5 stars Loses Steam Towards The End!
I have really enjoyed this interesting and informative history of the railways in Britain, from their earliest origins to the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Read more
Published 4 months ago by S. Matthews
4.0 out of 5 stars Great gift for a railway fan
Bought as a gift which was well received by someone who has long be a big fan of railways large and small..
Published 4 months ago by L A Markham
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent history of British railways, that doesn't shy from a...
This excellent history of the development of the British railway system has much going for it. The early history is fascinating, particularly the burst of Victorian railway... Read more
Published 5 months ago by M. Empson
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read for those who know nothing of railways
I chose this book because I was seeking an historical reference and found myself hooked. Have no prior interest in railways so had no idea what a fascinating story this would be. Read more
Published 6 months ago by G. Amis
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable
Enjoyable read-would recommend-fully informative and very detailed generally. Has that can't put down value therefor an easy read to digest.
Published 6 months ago by John Hanson
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