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Interesting and Scholarly
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.