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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.
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on 16 May 2013
A detailed account of railway development in the USA. The central thesis is that it was the railways that created the unification of the states.

So we have local cheaply built lines changing into something approaching transcontinental systems. A railway normally links existing population centres but there were no such centres in the West. This was no problem for the railways: they sold the generous grants of land they were given to immigrants prepared to make the train journey - and depots (and potential townships) were established as they went.

Massive corruption lead to the unpopularity of the railway companies with the general public, who were in any case suspicious of monoliths. The coming of the automobile and aircraft finally put paid to the limited profitability of passenger services. Trucks ate into freight, but heavy freight remains the main use of today's USA railways. Here the cost per ton moved is much lower than is possible by road. However, commuter trains and tramways flourish.

Christian Wolmar's writing is clear, but there are no illustrations or maps.
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on 24 April 2017
My interest in the subject rekindled by Michael Portillo, I decided to read this book I'd had on my Kindle for a while. It interesting and quite well written but I feel the editing could have been much better. I don't know if it is because some of the parts appeared in earlier books, but there is a huge amount of repetition which I found annoying.
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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.
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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.
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on 29 January 2015
well written
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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.
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on 21 February 2016
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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.
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on 19 January 2015
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