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102 of 106 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent and 'Mature' History
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...
Published on 13 Oct 2007 by Dr. R. Brandon

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An authoritative tome
A first-rate, comprehensive economic and political history of the railways, very well written by someone who clearly know his stuff. Personally, I found it a bit heavy at times [eg when explaining how lines and railway company's developed] and would've preferred more on the social history, eg how they changed how we live.
Published on 24 Nov 2009 by Paul Kirkwood


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, 22 April 2010
By 
K. Tune "mustard57" - See all my reviews
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I think it's Christian Wolmar who said that it was easier to identify the things the railways didn't change than the things they did.

This book is really exciting. Two things jumped out at me. Firstly - George Stephenson - an untutored Northumberland man who effectively invented the way we build railways including cuttings, embankments, tunnels and engines. None of the things we take for granted had ever been done before and he was the man that pioneered it. Secondly the speed of change. I think something like 30,000 miles of track were constructed in 50 years - the book is full of these sorts of statistics. Around 1/3 of that is left today. It really makes you marvel. I enjoyed the short section on the nature of the navvies - men whose contracts often specified that they be paid partly in beer, contributing to their reputation for hard living.

The chronicling of George Hudson, the disgraced railway king, whose deeds were similar to those of Bernie Madoff, in that he used sale of stock to fund dividends is a story worth knowing. Wolmar also discusses safety in great detail - a succession of horrific crashes led to the industry fumbling its way to the highly reliable service we use today - no-one invented this, we just had to learn from our terrible mistakes. Dickens early death is believed to him witnessing a particularly awful example.

How did nationalisation happen? Why is there no single London station. Why are there two lines into Brighton? All these questions and more will be answered by this highly readable book.

I just read 'The Ascent of Money' by Niall Ferguson - one of the most celebrated historians in the world. For my money Wolmar knows his turf far better and communicates it with greater mastery.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A railway book for a non railway buff, 29 Dec 2009
By 
A. J. King "ajking22" (UK) - See all my reviews
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Railways are a genre already generously endowed with literature, so this reader wondered why Wolmar felt moved to write yet another. The answer is that he is a journalist, not a railwayman, nor a railway historian nor possibly even a railway buff, so he brings firstly a refreshing objectivity (whoever read a railway book saying there were "too many railways"!) And as a journalist he also does not feel moved to using an over-formalised style of language (a trap many railway books fall into) , thus the book is written in the informal style of a sunday supplement article, or even a column in Rail Magazine, making for a highly readable, easily digestible book unafraid of informality( words such as "grotty", "crazy" and "daft" litter the text.
THe book does indeed rattle along - it has to. Larger books have been written about single branch lines so a polemic on the entire history of Britains's railways cannot waste time or space. Yet as I moved towards the climax of the book (the privatisation of BR in the 1990s) I began to wonder whether everything that had gone before was merely a warm up for Wolmar's bete noir. He has strong opinions all through the book but it is only when we reach the nineties do the opinions really bite with venom. This is where you can sense passion, anger, and even despair as Wolmar finally gets to sink his teeth into his favourite targets - incompetent or dishonest politicians of all hues who are still with us and - in some cases - still in power.
It is a fine book and I recommend it. The only reason I did not give 5 stars was the lack of a "what if" retrospective on the Beeching Era. Wolmar describes working practices and efficiences that have transformed rail economics and he alludes earlier in the book to how outdated practices and archaic technology condemned some viable lines. I would have liked to see an analysis of these two factors to see how much railway really could be reinstated if we had the will to do so. Perhaps there's still one more thesis waiting to be written!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Orient express of railway books, 16 Mar 2008
By 
Daniel Storey "Book_Worm_Daniel" (Rochester, England) - See all my reviews
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As I have worked in the railway industry for 6 years I like to think I understand a lot about the railway but this book made me realise I know only a little. In this book Christian takes you though the social and political history of the railways in Great Britain beginning with how the first railway line began (Manchester & Liverpool) and continues right up until the railway that exists today. Every chapter provides you with history, facts and knowledge that will help the reader to understand the railway and how it became what we travel on in the 21st century. The book made me laugh , got be frustated, made me angry and very proud all at various points in the book and also kept me intrested all the way to the very last page. The book is not just for railway enthusiasts despite having bits of railway nostalgia here and there, in my opinion its should be read by every passenger who has ever travelled on the railway and i think it will help the reader to understand a industry that has done as much to shape 21st century Great Britain as any. On a personal level this book made me proud to say I work for the railway.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars WAYS TO RUN A RAILWAY, 14 July 2008
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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This fascinating new history of the railways of Britain (with a little about Ireland) is approached mainly from an economic viewpoint. Technical issues are also dealt with in a readable and intelligible way, but the main focus is on the social and politico-economic context. Very properly, considerable space is given to the role of the railways in wartime, from the Boer War through the two World Wars, but the main thread follows the commercial motivations of the various interests who have tried to make commercial sense of it all. This thread takes us all the way from George Stephenson through the early `railway mania', the partial eclipse of rail transportation by the internal combustion engine, and the confused and satirical changes of strategy in the 1950's and 1960's up to the present day. Again very properly, Wolmar offers his own analysis of the present situation, and without trying to be too much of a prophet himself after so many before him had got the thing all wrong leaves us with a fairly clear indication of how it all may develop from here. It is probably worth saying that this book does not really belong in the huge category of railway nostalgia publications. The `feel' of this narrative is quite well conveyed by the illustrations, the aim of which is to convey the atmosphere of successive epochs. Anyone looking for more maps has an enormous range of alternative publications to choose from.

I find Wolmar's analysis very sensible and convincing in general. He likens the railway mania to the infamous South Sea Bubble and to the dot-com boom and bust, and that is how it seems to me too. Enthusiasm and excitement got the better of common sense, and the instances that Wolmar picks are well selected. Any nostalgist could think of dozens of others, but that is not the kind of book this is, and Wolmar is right not to lose his main focus. I suppose the crowning example is the Great Central network, stigmatised by Wolmar as a `railway without a purpose'. True enough, but Wolmar is sufficiently fair-minded to point out that behind even this scheme was Watkin's misty-eyed vision of a railway connecting Manchester with Paris. This has almost but not quite happened now - a break of journey is needed in London, and it might not have been necessary if Watkin's Great Central main line (built, I might add, with better clearances between the tracks than the surviving main lines) had been retained.

Wolmar also says, rightly in my opinion, that the Great Central main line would have been a great asset as a freight and diversionary route now that overcrowding on Britain's roads has forced traffic back on to rails, which are in their turn now stretched for capacity. `20/20 hindsight' one might say, but the problem remains that nothing less than accurate and even visionary foresight is what is required to handle railway planning, and I'm not disposed to mitigate my criticism of the way it has been done on any grounds that I would doubtless myself have done it as badly or worse. After this lapse of time we can all see how the early entrepreneurs were misled, and Wolmar's account is admirable. It is even better in his narration of the fiasco of railway planning in the 50's and 60's. One asks oneself - Did anyone involved get anything whatsoever right? Perhaps, but occasional sparks of insight were quenched and smothered by the multitude and monstrosity of the errors, and once again I commend the author for the level-headed and cool way he tells it.

The main lack that I sensed was in the treatment of rural railways, and I put this down to a certain tendency to treat accounting and social impact as mutually exclusive categories. I wanted more on this topic, and I would have liked the matter treated more from an economic standpoint in line with the general tenour of the book. Anyone at all versed in the matter knows how dubious, tendentious and crude were the accounting methods used to justify closure of rural lines, and Wolmar is again right in saying that if British Rail had been more alive to the economic necessity of abandoning steam in favour of diesel and electric traction not even the maddest axemen of the 60's could have got away with as much as they did. However we are now confronted with expensive road fuel, inadequate roads and overarching environmental anxieties associated with both, and we are surely going to have to look again at the old branch lines. Some, e.g. the Coniston branch, could certainly have been saved if road fuel had cost anything near what it costs now. Wolmar cites a couple of my own favourite and best-loved hopeless cases, but these are not quite parallels. One is the branch from Brighton to the Devil's Dyke, a genuine non-starter from the start, so to speak. However the heavenly route of the Invergarry and Fort Augustus, although irretrievable now, could once have been part of a valuable trunk line but for Victorian politics. Anyone interested in this little-documented story may still be able to find a fascinating VHS tape of which I have offered a review on this site, although you may have to go to the tourist office at Fort Augustus, as I had, to get it. However there needs to be a proper study of the instances that are less clear-cut, and I hope Wolmar or some other competent party may let us have it.

Some proper coverage is given to the role of women, but among the big engineering names while we hear about Churchward, Gresley and Stanier, where has that uncontrolled runaway Bulleid escaped to? Among railway managers the name of Chris Green is rightly picked out for honourable mention, and what a pity British Rail did not survive to have him as chairman. The writing is clear and mainly good, but when I read `homogenous' I had to wonder how many proof-readers still know the correct word, and when Wolmar says that Col Stephens wrote `coruscating' memos to backsliders I don't think it's `coruscating' that he means.

Where does the train go next? I doubt we shall ever see cheap road fuel again, and if we are capable of learning from past mistakes in railway planning there are plenty to learn from. In my own neck of the woods we are battling to keep the Woodhead Tunnel available for re-use as a railway because the trunk roads across the hills are inadequate and dangerous, and plans for a partial bypass of a couple of villages are going to be unhelpful at high cost. As it happens, this line was part of the Great Central. Watkin, perhaps you should be living at this hour.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine social history, 10 Mar 2008
Before railways came to London there was a remarkably rural feel to the place; 20,000 cows lived in the city to provide it with milk. But the railway revolution - perhaps as important as the industrial revolution with which it went hand in hand - meant milk could be brought in quickly and easily from outside, making the cows redundant. This is but one example of the ways railways helped to shape modern Britain, and Christian Wolmar's book is as much about these social changes as about engines and navvies. It doesn't dwell on technical details; it is, instead, a fine overview of the significance of railways that even the most dedicated of motorists would do well to study.

The British rail period was, if anything, something of a golden age for Britain's railways; at least they operated as a system. The failure to improve services then and since stems from decades of political neglect, from both main parties. But the railways were never built with a strategic eye to what they could achieve or how best be managed. Victorian laissez-faire capitalism had aspects to commend it, but a spirit of cooperation was never part of the mindset, and duplication and redundancy was inevitable, as were cuts in later years.

Victorian railway engineers would be proud to know their achievements are still used by modern travellers, but it's ridiculous that 125mph trains have to crawl across the Tamar bridge outside Plymouth. That such ancient infrastructure is still essential to the network shows how far behind the railway curve Britain has slipped. Two decades ago Spain was saddled with an antiquated network and a mix of gauges, but has ploughed billions into new lines and trains so reliable that fares are refunded for a delay of just five minutes. Meanwhile, the only genuinely fast service in Britain runs to Paris. One justification for studying history is that if we don't know where we've come from, how can we know where we're going. This is especially true of the railways, and this book is a great place to start.

.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read for those who know nothing of railways, 28 Feb 2014
By 
G. Amis - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain (Kindle Edition)
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. From earliest times to the present day, this book is full of interesting details while delivering an account of how railways in the UK developed, the engineering, the politics, some skullduggery - its all here. Well researched, well written and well paced - unsentimental and always surprising. Have no quite finished it yet and will be sorry when I get to the end!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Social History of Something Wonderful We Take for Granted, 18 Jun 2014
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Amazon Customer (Leicestershire, UK) - See all my reviews
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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 an opinion on railways. He's the master of the dry-eyed politically savvy polemic, and indeed the only people I could imagine not rating this book highly are the rivet counters or those who insist on a rose-tinted see no evil heritage view. Readable, the only teeny criticism I could muster is that each chapter could be extended to a 500 page study, and in maintaining his slick journalistic prose style, I felt he left stuff behind just as it got interesting. The most impressive part for me was lifting the lid on the worker exploitation, strike breaking, organisation of labour and us-and-them mentality, of the late Victorian period when the railways were at their zenith - but that's certainly not saying that any part of this book isn't perceptive, informative and presented in a highly readable story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book even for non-railway enthusiasts, 3 Jun 2008
By 
Big Jim "Big Jim" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Not being what you might call a railways enthusiast, I picked up on this book shortly after reading "The Industrial Revolutionaries". Much like that volume, this is a relatively short overview of what is a vast subject and more detailed books on various specific aspects of railway history obviously exist and many are name checked here. Like a previously reviewer I spotted a couple of factual errors, and found the style sometimes a bit erratic, with the author darting here and there in various chapters where perhaps a more coherent approach may have paid dividends. Nonetheless this is an interesting and informative read which concentrates on the human story as much as on the technical aspects.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wolmar's Fire & Steam, 28 Mar 2010
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Christian Wolmar provides a comprehensive history of UK Railways and successfully links the facts to the dramatic social changes driven by the age of the railway. It could be a lot longer, but is already a fairly thick volume, and he admits that some areas are not covered in much detail due to space limitations. However, it's still a great read and, unlike some similar books, brings the railways out of the age of steam right up to date and into that of electric high-speed rail.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent History Mr Wolmar, 29 May 2014
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This review is from: Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain (Kindle Edition)
Simply a very informative read. Straightforward history of railways in Great Britain since their first development right up to beyond privatisation.

Living quite close to the Liverpool to manchester line as I do it makes me want to find out more about what is effectively the worlds "proper" railway. Also makes me think Northern and the respective boroughs it travels through should shout about it more.
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