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Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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. Some government involvement was necessary at various times but it certainly hasn't all been beneficial. Beeching's butchery of the network was a gross over-reaction. The privatization of the nineties has also been problematic to say the least, although as one who travelled extensively on the railways in the seventies and eighties, I don't remember British Rail very fondly either. Still, the Channel Tunnel eventually got built, as did the high speed link to St Pancras and the author suggests, probably correctly, that the railways still have an important role to play in Britain's future.

The social impact is easy to forget, but Britain was a very different place 200 years ago. The author points to holidays away from home, commuting to work and the development of the football league among many things that couldn't have happened when they did without the railways, though these things would have eventually happened anyway. When it comes to shopping, the author points out that while freight trains were able to allow local shops to stock a wider range of products than before, passenger trains allowed people to head for the nearby town or city to see a wider range of shops, so the effect was two-way. Many other examples of the social impact of railways are given throughout the book, though they are limited to the practical effects. Although Charles Dickens and John Betjeman both get mentions in the main text and there is a bibliography for further reading near the back of the book, the author makes no real attempt to explore the impact of railways on general literature or other cultural influences, but the author couldn't cover everything.

All in all, this is a fascinating book. Historians and railway enthusiasts may disagree about what has been included and what omitted and they may also disagree with some of the author's expressed opinions, but there is plenty of interesting reading here, whether you're familiar with the history of railways in Britain or not. The author was clearly firing on all cylinders when he wrote this book, letting off steam when he needed to without ever going off the rails.
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108 of 113 people found the following review helpful
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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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. Yet for all of these problems Wolmar is optimistic about the future of railways, arguing that despite continued dithering over investment in its infrastructure, technological innovation promises to deliver improvements in performance that can ensure the survival of railways for another century.

A journalist and self-styled `transport commentator', Wolmar's passion for his subject shines through on every page. He writes in a light and readable style that conveys well his extensive knowledge of Britain's railways without burdening his readers with minutiae. This combination makes his book a superb starting point for anyone seeking to learn more about Britain's railways and the country's long, oftentimes troubled, yet always fascinating relationship with them.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on 7 November 2007
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 20 March 2010
This is a beautifully crafted book that tracks the history of the railways in Britain from Stephenson through to the early 2000's. It relates the days of early scepticism and opposition, through the rush for railway construction of the mid-1800s, to competition and consolidation, the push for speed and consequent concerns over safety, growing unionisation, wartime heroics, decline, nationalisation, the end of steam, Beeching, British Rail in its prime and, finally, the horrifically botched privatisation of the 1990s and its consequences.. A vast amount of literature exists about the railways in Britain, with books appearing to have been written on virtually every possible aspect of it. Christian Wolmar's skill lies in drawing from that vast canon of work, distilling and shaping the best bits and adding his own strong views where appropriate, such as with the botched privatisation of British Rail. Although the book will undoubtedly appeal to railway enthusiasts, it should also appeal to a much wider readership, including those who enjoy tales of real life adventure, travel, romanticism, business and entrepreneurship, government, as well as social and cultural history. In writing a book with such wide appeal the author has done the railways in Britain a real service.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 22 October 2007
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 21 March 2010
This is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in quite a while. I'm not a train buff but enjoy social and economic history and will admit to a real nostalgic feel when seeing old steam engines. This book goes at a real good tempo through the highs and lows of railways in Britain from its birth right through the glorious years of the early major railway companies and then the lack of investment through two world wars which saw journey times between cities fall and infrastructure become tired and shabby. It goes then trails through the extreme lows of the Beeching era and then slowly back to the revival of the railways towards the end of the twentieth century and the glorious revival of St Pancras in 2007. As much as this is a book about railways, its also a major insight into Britain's social and political history over the last 150 years. The impact of the railways on the way the country evolved from where we lived to where we took our holidays and how our diets changed are all brilliantly described here.

This really isn't a book just for railway enthusiasts - if you want to enjoy a history of Britain since 1800, then go for this book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 28 February 2008
This is a history book of the best kind; one that examines an element of our world that we take for granted and think we know well, and makes us look at it afresh. Also, through talking about the development of the railways it throws light on the world and the people that created, maintained and then almost destroyed them through almost 200 years of history. I found the early chapters the most interesting - it seems odd to think now that there was a time only a few generations ago when the country was not carved apart by roads and railways, and to read about how people who had never known anything else responded to this devastating new force, which would have seemed like science fiction in a horse-driven world. The progression through various rapidly shifting attitudes, cultures and economies through to the present day reminds us that our own age is merely a passing phase - the next chapter in a future edition - yet with responsibilities that will have repercussions for centuries to come.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 21 December 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.

We need a programme of electrification: only a third of the system has been electrified so far, compared to a half or more in Europe's countries. We need London's Crossrail to be built, not just talked about. And why not a high-speed network, like those being built in Spain and Italy? Currently we have just 62 miles, High Speed One, between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel, and there are no plans for more.

The railways need investment because they "generate economic growth, enable people to travel comfortably and cause much less environmental damage than the alternatives." Rail is the cleanest, safest and best form of mass transport for the 21st century.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 8 July 2014
An enjoyable book, but the Kindle version spoiled things for me, since the maps are not readable due to their small size. While Kindles allow you to increase or decrease font sizes of the main text, any embedded illustrations are of fixed size, and in this case it makes the maps unusable, which is a shame when trying to understand the network being described.
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