Top positive review
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an excelent history
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.