To a time traveller from the recent past, Britain’s modern railway network, with its garish, overcrowded carriages, its inevitable delays and its forgotten rural stations crumbling beneath the weeds, would come as a terrible shock. For the Victorians and Edwardians, the railways were the supreme symbol of British engineering, enterprise and vision, heralding a new age of modernity and mobility that drew gasps of wonder across the world. And as Christian Wolmar explains in this compelling history, it is no exaggeration to say that where Britain led, the rest of the world followed admiringly behind.
It was in September 1830 that the world’s first train chugged down the tracks between Liverpool and Manchester, although the excitement was rather spoiled when the MP William Huskisson was run over by a passing locomotive. Almost immediately, however, railway fever spread across the Continent. “Railway! A magical aura already surrounds the word,” wrote the French dictionary compiler Pierre Larousse, calling it ” synonym for civilisation, progress and fraternity”. Gratifyingly, although the French immediately started on railways of their own, they soon realised that British was best and began importing designers, drivers and even navvies across the Channel. And the British workers
caused quite a stir. The sight of “every man with his shirt open, working in the heat of the day”, one French observer recorded, was “as fine a spectacle as any man could witness”.
Wolmar points out that early decisions could have enormous historical consequences, above all the question of gauge. Spain’s decision to use a different gauge from France – which was driven by fears of invasion from the north – meant that the Iberian peninsula was effectively cut off politically and economically for decades. And Australia provides a textbook example of “how not to build a railway network”, its failure even more damaging because the railway could have utterly transformed
its economic prospects. Yet individual states insisted on using different gauges – which meant that the development of an integrated international system was almost impossible.
Wolmar makes a powerful case for the railways as drivers of great historical change. It was through the railway that the United States extended its political and economic dominion from sea to sea, and it
played a key part in the unification of Bismarck’s Germany. Yet the most memorable images from this fine book remind us of the sheer sacrifice involved in their construction. In India, perhaps 25,000
native workers died from malaria, typhoid and smallpox while carving the line through the mountain range of the Western Ghats. And in Panama, hundreds of Chinese labourers toiled in unimaginably ghastly conditions to drive a line across the isthmus. Hated by their Irish fellows, “they became severely depressed”, Wolmar writes, “and started committing mass suicide in bizarre ways”. Some hung themselves from trees, or paid Malayan workers to cut their heads off; others tied stones to their feet and walked out to sea. They died without leaving addresses or family details, and history does not even record their names.