Fire and Steam Review by Geoff Bottoms

You don’t have to be an “anorak” to appreciate Christian Wolmar’s new history of the railways in Britain.

In fact, this breathtaking tour-de-force study of a revolutionary transport system that transformed the social, cultural and economic base of society is written for a general audience and comes from the pen of Britain’s foremost expert on public transport.

From the opening of the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 to the botched privatisation of 1996-7 that has proved both dysfunctional and expensive, Wolmar fires and inspires his reader with this fresh account of how our railways came to form the Britain of today.

As a social history, it is indispensable in shedding light on the phenomenal growth of the Industrial Revolution and the formation of the working class as the Victorian entrepreneurs, tempted by huge returns, clamoured to invest in this ever-expanding system.

Despite Wolmar’s devastating critique of privatisation, the future of rail travel would appear to be assured, with growing demand, technological developments producing environmentally friendly high-speed trains and improved safety records.

The irony is that, under privatisation, the railways are subjected to more political interference now than at any time in the industry’s history, resulting in a form of limbo between the private and public sectors.

Beautifully illustrated with detailed maps and copious notes, Fire and Steam acts as a prism of the socioeconomic developments of the past 170 years.

It deserves to be read and studied by all those who wish to understand the forces that shape today’s globalised and neoliberal world and the revolutionary possibilities of a truly public railway.

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