on 14 May 2012
Christian Wolmar is an expert on the railways but is also, first and foremost, a very good writer, who is able to bend what might be dry and technical material into an entertaining narrative, in which the technicalities are subservient to the story, and history is enlivened with many vignettes and anecdotes.
This is the case with his previous railway history books, but in his latest he has excelled himself. The book is a compelling read, offering as it does a whole series of insights into two hundred years or so of United States' history, both economic and social. The close links between America and Britain were no closer than in the development of the railways in both countries, and he shows what these links meant but also contrasts the differences in how two major transport systems developed. He shows how in many respects the railways made the two countries into what they were, at least until the time of the railway heyday on both sides of the Atlantic. He also entertainingly shows how differences between the two systems (especially in the treatment of passengers) were emblematic of the two diverging cultures.
In contrast to Europe, the US railroads developed in an almost totally haphazard way, reflecting in part the reluctance of government to intervene but showing how judicious intervention might have benefitted everyone. To some extent this happened in the civil war, and Wolmar shows what a crucial role the railways played in it. His chapter on the scandals and achievements of the first transcontinental railway is also particularly entertaining.
To enjoy this book you don't need to be a railway buff although they, of course, will enjoy it too.
on 15 November 2012
Christian Wolmar's latest railway book is the best yet. The complex story of the creation, development and decline of the American national railway network is a vital but sad story. Wolmar's ability to cut through the chaff to find the seminal moments, quotations and documents that defined the magnitude and social impacts of the almost wholly-private railway system is engaging. The narrative has benefited from his journalistic style and incisiveness. Earlier books on the subject are, by comparison, just too detailed to provide the political and social trends that Wolmar has successfully perceived.
Who can imagine that the American railway network could have been un-ready for both world wars of the last century due to lack of government understanding of the system's legislative and financial needs and inter-state commercial restrictions? Who can imagine the present need to create another railway network for high-speed passenger trains where so many rights of way had existed between the larger cities, albeit unfenced?
Wolmar has provided useful comparisons between American and UK/European railway networks so that the sheer scale of the American system can be appreciated.
He provides a series of interesting digressions like his description of the demise of the inter-urban street-car lines exemplifying, as it did, the struggle between the growth of motor traffic and the use of railways and a cameo appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson travelling on the Transcontinental.
I hope that Wolmar will, in the future, provide an analysis of the Chinese Railway network.
This has been a great read and should be part of any serious railway library.
on 11 April 2013
This is a VERY readable history of railways in the USA. The author also devotes a substantial amount of space to the social and historical background. Of particular interest to this reviewer was the detailed description of the damage inflicted on the railways by government regulators on one hand, and by the trade unions on the other.
The book is clearly aimed at the British reader, with numerous comparisons between the ways things were done in the UK and the USA. References to developments in other European countries are also provided. To the reviewer's regret technical details of steam engines, signalling &c are not covered in this book.
All in all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written and educational book.
on 9 April 2013
A couple of years ago I enjoyed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad museum: lots to see including a monstrous `Allegheny' 2-6-6-6. Knowing nothing about US railroad history I tried a big bookstore hoping to find a Christian Wolmar-type volume on the subject. That means coverage of the politics, economics, business, civil engineering and historical context - and not much O S Nock-ish minutiae about superheater tubes and suchlike. Nothing doing but soon afterwards exactly what I needed appeared as `The Great Railway Revolution'. The subject must be vast, but Wolmar selects and paces the story to give an enjoyable and right-length read. Endnotes and a bibliography make the book feel rigorous without being too scholarly. Recommended.
on 29 December 2012
As a renowned international railway historian, Wolmar chronicles how the American railway system followed - and diverged from - its European counterparts. He illustrates how events such as the Civil War, the exploitation of the west and the depressions and reconstruction programmes influenced, and were influenced by, the expanding rail network, and how the phenomenal growth of air and road traffic since the mid twentieth century nearly killed it. Wolmar concludes that the USA can never sustain an European style national rail network, and that the future of the American rail system will concentrate on freight and on suburban and shorter inter-city passenger journeys.
The text is well written, although it could have been better illustrated with more and better maps.
This is a worthwhile read, not only for railway enthusiasts, but anyone interested in the social and political history of the USA.
I have had a passing interest in American railroads fir many years without finding out about them in any detail. In recent years, I have built up a collection of railroad music, so I'm familiar with all the classic train songs. However, this is the first serious book I've read about the railroads. It won't be the last because one book can never hope to cover everything and there's lots more that I want to learn about, but it's a good start, covering the basic history, the politics, the corruption, the role that railroads played in the Civil War (the first major war anywhere in the world after the invention of trains) and so much else.
One obvious problem for me is the map pages. Given that the author has understandably chosen to focus primarily on a few specific lines that he uses as examples, it would have been a good idea to show a map featuring just those lines, or at least having those lines clearly identifiable from the others. It is impossible to identify them purely from the maps provided.
The author starts by discussing early British railway history before progressing to the pioneering American railroads. From there, he only refers to Britain occasionally and that's a good thing, but being more familiar with British history, I inevitably compared and contrasted continuously. There are some similarities but also a lot of differences. The differences are a consequence of America's size, population density, comparative newness, political attitudes and its greater dependence on agriculture in the early 19th century.
Finally, the author attempts to campaign for the revival of American long-distance passenger trains. Dallas may be approximately the same distance from Houston as Birmingham is from London, but there aren't likely to be a lot of other similarities. For a start, Birmingham and London are both hubs for other rail traffic, and that's before you consider that there are alternative routes between them. A line connecting Dallas with Houston without other rail traffic at each end would not cause passengers to switch from the airlines. I suppose the idea of reviving American long-distance passenger trains is more realistic than a different author's idea of reviving steam trains commercially, but I can't imagine the political will to do it ever being there. Will the British never learn that the days of empire are long gone? The Americans kicked us out in 1776 because they didn't like British rule.
As a basic history, this is solid, but I could have done without the campaigning, and there were various other lesser things that I found irritating, hence only 4 stars.
on 25 July 2013
It would be hard not to find this book (or subject) interesting: historically, geographically, politically, commercially and technologically. But do not expect a light read. The book is detailed and entailed considerable research.
We meet people such as Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln and learn about the great importance of railways in the Civil War: "the world's first railway war". I was not fully aware of the disruption caused by the railroads to the Native American way of life, and certainly not aware of the remarkable degree of corruption and the resultant inefficiencies and expense involved in building the railways to and from the Pacific. The celebrations surrounding the completion of the link seem to have been quite something but it took some time for it to be greatly utilised.
The background to the development of the of the Pacific railways is interesting in various respects. They would not succeed unless the routes were populated and so major efforts were made to attract immigrants, including inaccurate weather forecasting (still with us today!). The phrases "Wild West", "How the West was won" and "Go West, young man" are placed in context (as is "Cowboys and Indians"). The book also highlights the many safety hazards involved in nineteenth century rail travel. The train robbers seem to have acquired Ned Kelly status. There is also an industrial relations backdrop, as in so many fields of employment: exploitation by the employers leading ultimately to powerful unions and uneconomic working practices.
Later we come across railway barons, some with names still famous today, and the advent of luxury travel and long distance journeys with almost cruise-type facilities. But before too long the saga of the sad decline sets in. However, to some extent this is countered by the remarkable turn round and success of the freight railroad service in recent years. Any revival of passenger services is more patchy and America seems unprepared for the efficient high speed trains of western Europe. Indeed, I was interested to read the reference to "hostility to the very idea of rail, often presented as an alien socialist concept by right wing politicians": I understand that Margaret Thatcher refused to travel by train.
It is difficult to over-estimate the effect that the railway had on the USA, in things as diverse as the economy, commerce, tourism, sport and leisure. I wouldn't call myself a railway buff, but I learnt quite a lot from this book, and not only about railways.
on 8 July 2013
This is the third or fourth book I have read by Christian Wolmar, and it does not disappoint.
What makes his books so good, is that they clearly demonstrate great knowledge, deep research, and detailed understanding of the subject, alongside a writing style that is eminently suited to the general reader. I have no special interest in railways, apart from their general place in history, and yet I look forward to reading one of the author's works, as I know it will be good history.
This book covers the development of the railways in America; it is not really a technical work, but more a social history, and explains very well how America was virtually built by the railways. It looks at the railways in the civil war, the boom and bust periods (mostly bust), and the decline of the last 50 years or so.
Interesting from start to finish, this is a good book for you if you are interested in railways, but also if you are interested in American history, because railways form a major part of that history.
on 7 October 2013
Like his story of the British love to hate relationship with the railroads, Christian Wolmar paints a clear picture of the importance of the railroads in the development of the United States. It is only a shame that more Americans do not know their history, especially politicians. From unbridled capitalism to a begrudging acceptance of public infrastructure, Wolmar describes the schizophrenic view of railroads in the American consciousness. For lovers of the American way of life and American history, this book is a real treat. Tasty but not so heavy as to cause brain indigestion. It has enough technical detail to satisfy train set amateurs, but is not an engineers handbook (in either the US or UK sense of the word). I thoroughly enjoyed it.
on 6 May 2013
This would have been a much better book with some maps (I had to keep referring to an atlas). Also the book makes very little comment about many of the technical developments where the US did lead the world (for example air brakes and track circuits). Since the book is written from a British perspective more could have been made of comparisons between British and US practice. Comes over as what used to be called a "pot boiler" - i.e. a book written to keep the author's income stream flowing rather than because he has something special to say.