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on 25 July 2013
It would be hard not to find this book (or subject) interesting: historically, geographically, politically, commercially and technologically. But do not expect a light read. The book is detailed and entailed considerable research.

We meet people such as Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln and learn about the great importance of railways in the Civil War: "the world's first railway war". I was not fully aware of the disruption caused by the railroads to the Native American way of life, and certainly not aware of the remarkable degree of corruption and the resultant inefficiencies and expense involved in building the railways to and from the Pacific. The celebrations surrounding the completion of the link seem to have been quite something but it took some time for it to be greatly utilised.

The background to the development of the of the Pacific railways is interesting in various respects. They would not succeed unless the routes were populated and so major efforts were made to attract immigrants, including inaccurate weather forecasting (still with us today!). The phrases "Wild West", "How the West was won" and "Go West, young man" are placed in context (as is "Cowboys and Indians"). The book also highlights the many safety hazards involved in nineteenth century rail travel. The train robbers seem to have acquired Ned Kelly status. There is also an industrial relations backdrop, as in so many fields of employment: exploitation by the employers leading ultimately to powerful unions and uneconomic working practices.

Later we come across railway barons, some with names still famous today, and the advent of luxury travel and long distance journeys with almost cruise-type facilities. But before too long the saga of the sad decline sets in. However, to some extent this is countered by the remarkable turn round and success of the freight railroad service in recent years. Any revival of passenger services is more patchy and America seems unprepared for the efficient high speed trains of western Europe. Indeed, I was interested to read the reference to "hostility to the very idea of rail, often presented as an alien socialist concept by right wing politicians": I understand that Margaret Thatcher refused to travel by train.

It is difficult to over-estimate the effect that the railway had on the USA, in things as diverse as the economy, commerce, tourism, sport and leisure. I wouldn't call myself a railway buff, but I learnt quite a lot from this book, and not only about railways.
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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 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 7 October 2013
Like his story of the British love to hate relationship with the railroads, Christian Wolmar paints a clear picture of the importance of the railroads in the development of the United States. It is only a shame that more Americans do not know their history, especially politicians. From unbridled capitalism to a begrudging acceptance of public infrastructure, Wolmar describes the schizophrenic view of railroads in the American consciousness. For lovers of the American way of life and American history, this book is a real treat. Tasty but not so heavy as to cause brain indigestion. It has enough technical detail to satisfy train set amateurs, but is not an engineers handbook (in either the US or UK sense of the word). I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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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 11 December 2016
This is a wonderful book. It tells a fascinating and important story about the creation and development of the railroads and sheds light on a unique aspect of American social, economic and political history. It's also very readable. It should have an audience far wider than just railway enthusiasts.
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on 24 April 2013
Much of the book is very interesting as far as the history and development of the railways is concerned BUT in places there is too much detail and some duplication of facts. I found it necessary to skim read certain sections because it started to get 'bogged down in the detail'. Having said that it is actually a fascinating read-'the rise and fall of American rail' with political influence and fraud on a massive scale.
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on 30 November 2013
Absorbing, warmly written and highly informative as we can always expect from the master of railway books. Covers entire history of America's railroads and their key players. I recommend all rail enthusiasts read this and all Mr Wolmar's titles.
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on 13 October 2013
This is a comprehensive, long but not languid history of the railways in America: the triumphs of nineteenth-century capital and the nervous system that spread along the first phase of the population of America.
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