As a sequel to Fire And Steam – How The Railways Transformed Britain, Christian Wolmar’s innovative history of how railways have shaped the modern world is a masterful tour de force whose appeal lies beyond the world of the railway enthusiast.
While Blood, Iron And Gold could never claim to be the definitive work on the subject, it will surely act as a catalyst for further research into the social history of specific railways around the world. For that it is to be congratulated.
Beginning with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, the author traces the phenomenal spread of railways around the world even to the remotest and most inhospitable places and describes their role in stimulating economic development, effecting social change, unifying nations and bringing people closer together.
They are set to build upon this revolutionary role in the 21st century with the expansion of high-speed rail routes that will transform the movement of people and goods in an ever-shrinking world with fewer borders.
Wolmar is an eminent transport journalist with his finger on the pulse so the gripping narrative will come as no surprise to his readers.
He not only assesses the global impact of the railway revolution but also places it in a modern context which highlights its inherent contradictions.
For example, the debate over whether railways should be privately or publicly owned and the role of the state in long-term planning and strategic thinking continues unabated and defines the difference between Anglo-Saxon and European attitudes towards corporate governance.
The author has concentrated mainly on the great railway systems of India, the US and Russia, which on one hand entailed onerous and horrific conditions for those who built them yet on the other were incredible feats of engineering and innovation.
Wolmar also covers most railways that come within the remit of his work – particularly if there is a good story to tell and the information is accessible.
He examines the vital role railways played in the two world wars, their subsequent decline in the face of the ubiquitous motor car and their current renaissance.
All in all this is an unprecedented social history of the railways which reveals the progressive nature of rail transport and its capacity to change lives for the better.
Without railways our world would be a totally different place.
They brought the benefits of the industrial and technological revolutions within everyone’s reach and helped to shape modern society.