In the depths of last winter, I had to get back home by train and plane from St Moritz via Zurich, after two feet of snow had fallen in the Alpine valleys and a few inches in south-east England. You probably imagine that this story ends with the Swiss train being bang on time. Not so: it was 90 seconds late. The plane was delayed five hours (late arrival of incoming aircraft) and there was a complete shambles at Luton Airport, where the bus to the station was carefully timed to miss the hourly train by a couple of minutes.
Every country’s transport system is an expression of its national character and history. Britain invented the railways and developed an anarchic system at breakneck speed, with consequences the nation still endures. Switzerland, poor and backward in the 19th century, did it slowly and got it right. As Christian Wolmar points out, the two developed countries most reluctant to embrace the new 21st-century railway age are those where governmental control was weakest in the pioneering days: the US and Britain.
Wolmar’s eighth book about railways is the first to step beyond Britain, and is by far his most sweeping and ambitious. It is easy to forget just what the train did to and for the planet. No invention – forget the internet, not even a contender – has ever transformed the way the world travelled, worked, thought, fought, ate, drank, made love – you name it – the way this one did. Even the more hopelessly uneconomic lines revolutionised the lives of people in the territory they passed through, in Senegal as in Shropshire. And they did not arrive by magic.
The narrative takes on its most epic quality in the United States; its most stupid in Australia (where the different states set about building a charming variety of gauges without a thought about what would happen when you tried to link them up); and its most brutal in India, where maybe 25,000 workers died building the line through the Western Ghats alone.
Even that, however, pales alongside the story of the Panama railway. Eight hundred indentured Chinese labourers were shipped in, deprived of their supplies of opium, became terminally depressed and committed mass suicide, in some cases paying their Malay colleagues to chop off their heads with their machetes. They were not the only sufferers, what with the heat, the disease, the snakes, the alligators and the accidents. At one stage (1852), one-fifth of the workforce was dying every month.
There is still a passenger train five days a week from Panama to Colón and back. It sounds rather enticing, actually (“luxurious wood panelling… open-air viewing platforms… bar and snack service”), but you might wish to pause for thought along the way.
In the US, the horrors could take on a cartoonish quality. As the railroads spread west, they ran into opposition from the Mississippi rivermen, who envisaged losing their business as surely as the British canals had lost theirs. Two weeks after the first train crossed the Big Muddy from Illinois into Iowa, a packet boat, the Effie Afton, smashed into the bridge, causing a fire that wrecked it. This might have been an unfortunate accident, except that the next boat passing the site carried a banner: “Mississippi Bridge destroyed. Let all rejoice.”
Wolmar spends most of his time as a specialist railway journalist, interpreting the latest piece of craziness to emerge from Britain’s fractured network. He is not, he likes to insist, an enthusiast but, rather, a journalist who happens to write about railways. He still brings a lot of zest to the subject and this is a book refreshingly free of technicalities. It is a great story well told. And it is a reminder of the awesome scale of the railway revolution. Even the most boring commuter routes into London had an almost unimaginable human cost in terms of lives lost and homes destroyed (often without any compensation).
It is worth looking up from your sudoku and your BlackBerry to wonder at it all and grieve a little, not just between Panama and Colón, but also between Leighton Buzzard and Euston or Woking and Waterloo