Top positive review
3 people found this helpful
A mostly amusing but sometimes sad book about train travel
on 6 June 2009
This series includes books devoted to various sports (and I`ve reviewed the ones covering golf, tennis, horse racing and the Olympics), but other subjects have also been covered. This book about railways is the first of the series that I've reviewed on a nom-sporting subject, though it probably won't be the last. If you're familiar with other books in the series, you'll have some idea of what to expect. Like the equivalent horse racing book, this one has a clear bias towards the nineteenth century as well as a bias towards Britain. Not all books in the series are like this but for railways, like horse racing, the nineteenth century was a period of major development when many lessons were learned. A lot of strange things that happened then couldn't have happened more recently. So the nineteenth century bias may not be typical of the series as a whole (the golf, tennis and Olympics books focus mainly on the twentieth century) but there is always going to be a British bias, because this is a British book.
Despite the title, not all of the railway stories involve journeys, though most do. Many of the stories are hilarious. They are presented in date order, the first one being about a journey on the Maryport and Carlisle Railway. It supposedly dates from 1817, eight years before the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened, but the railway in question didn`t open until 1845. I wonder if the story is really about a stagecoach journey. Apparently, a farmer refused to buy a ticket for his dog so the dog was loosely tethered to the rear of the train. In those days, journeys were very slow and the dog, running behind, kept pace easily despite the driver going as fast as possible in an attempt to prevent it. Much to the driver's fury, by the time they reached the farmer's destination, they found that the dog had broken from his tether, run ahead and was waiting to greet the train. The book includes several dog stories but this is surely the strangest. Of course, it couldn't happen once steam locomotives replaced horses.
A measure of how slow trains were in the early days comes from the 1827 story about the British parliament's questioning of George Stephenson. Apparently, some politicians believed that high-speed travel (twelve miles per hour) would cause enormous stress to the human body, so much so that the whole idea of train travel should be abandoned. If nothing else, this episode shows that politicians getting things wrong is a very old tradition.
The oldest (1830) story from America concerns the first steam locomotive build there, called Best Friend. It is not funny but tragic. The fireman didn't understand the locomotive and sat on the safety valve to stop it making so much noise, causing it to explode, thereby killing him. The second (1835) American story is funny. A locomotive called Tom Thumb raced against a horse - and lost. This story concludes by saying that it was the first American locomotive. Wait a minute - wasn't Best Friend first? Obviously, there's a mistake somewhere but hope the author didn't make too many mistakes.
Another funny story, dated 1852, highlights the bitter rivalry between different train operators. When one train operator attempted to send a train to a station controlled by a rival, the train was boxed in and diverted into a siding after the passengers had disembarked. The siding was disconnected from the network by the removal of rails, stranding the train until the rivals made a peace agreement.
Passengers were often treated badly in the early days of train travel. A story from France (1862) explains that overcrowding was sometimes resolved by adding cattle trucks to passenger trains. On one such occasion, the passengers forced to travel in cattle trucks behaved like cattle, made appropriate mooing noises and caused a lot of trouble for train staff. Can you blame them?
Elsewhere in the book, there is a funny story from 1925 about an attempted gold robbery, foiled because a substitute signalman overpowered the robbers, who had expected to find an old, defenceless man on duty. The regular signalman happened to be ill at the time, but his younger substitute was exceptionally strong and might have made a career as a professional boxer. Those would-be robbers were very unlucky but others have succeeded. This book ignores the famous but bungled Great Train Robbery of 1963 (the one involving Ronnie Biggs), but gives an account of the highly successful (from the criminal perspective) 1855 robbery. Success even in that case didn't last long, because one of the robbers was caught for a different crime.
I've mentioned just a few of the strange stories from this highly entertaining book. It certainly makes a change from the vast majority of railway books that tend to focus on more serious (but no less interesting) aspects of trains and railways.