Blood, Iron and Gold review by Harry Mead

THANK the railways for – air hostesses. Their advent was an unintended by-product of the US’s celebrated Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

Constructed between 1868 and the mid-1880s, it linked Topeka, in Kansas, with Los Angeles via Chicago and Sante Fe in New Mexico.

Christian Wolmar recalls that the line “became the most successful of the US’s five transcontinental railways”.

Its pioneering innovations included “an excellent meals service, provided by waitresses who were the precursors of air hostesses. Chosen for their youth, character and attractiveness, they were known as Harvey Girls, after Frederick H Harvey who developed the concept.”

Back in Britain, the railways had an arguably more profound effect. Wolmar explains: “Fresh fish was brought by overnight trains to inland towns and became part of the urban diet for the first time. As a result, fish and chips, once the sole preserve of seaside towns, became the national dish.”

Britain’s foremost authority on public transport, especially railways, Wolmar here undertakes the daunting task of assessing the global impact of railways. He succeeds brilliantly, producing a companion volume to his justly-acclaimed Fire & Steam, a social history of Britain’s railways, that is equally rich in facts and insight.

He writes: “To understand how the railways changed the world, put yourself in the position of a person who had never seen a large machine, nor travelled in or witnessed anything faster than a galloping horse. Their horizons were necessarily limited. The iron road changed that forever.

“Quite simply, between the first quarter and last quarter of the 19th Century, the railways transformed the world from one where most people barely travelled beyond their village or nearest market town, to one where it became possible to cross continents in days rather than months. Their development created a vast manufacturing industry that ensured the Industrial Revolution would affect the lives of virtually everyone on the planet.

Everything from holidays to suburban sprawl and fresh milk to mail order was made possible by the coming of the railways.”

Wolmar recognises the founding contribution of North-East England.

In the early 16th Century it probably pioneered the wagonways that preceded railways proper, though Wolmar acknowledges a rival claim from Saxony in Northern Germany. But in 1726 a group of North-East coalowners anticipated the concept of an organised railway by creating a joint “main line”.

Wolmar salutes its outstanding engineering feature – “the Causey Arch, a bridge with a 100ft span that lays claim to being the world’s first railway bridge and survives today.”

Of course, the Stockton and Darlington appears, but only as the final warm-up act. Crediting the later (1830) Liverpool and Manchester Railway with truly ushering in the railway age, Wolmar says of the S & DR: “It was a single track local line whose principal purpose was hauling coal, and the railway carried few passengers. Most of the trains, including all the early passenger services, were horse-hauled… Indeed, at one point the directors contemplated turning the railway back to horse haulage and only relented after desperate pleas from (George) Stephenson.” So, those S & DR promoters who met at Yarm’s George and Dragon weren’t quite the visionaries of regional myth.

But the North-East remains in Wolmar’s global picture. What he calls “bucket-and-spade specials” to Scarborough symbolised the railways’ boost for tourism. Overlooked by most historians, the North-East was also the setting for the final farewell to a defining feature of the railways’ glory days worldwide: when they were withdrawn in 2004, GNER’S Tyne Tees Pullman and Yorkshire Pullman were the very last trains proclaiming the name of the founder of luxury rail travel, the American George Pullman.

Wolmar sweepingly captures the railway age at its zenith. “Railways were built to subdue colonies or indigenous populations, to transport armies, to bypass unnavigable stretches of river, to conquer territory and, frequently, to unite countries.” Judiciously illustrating all this, he digs out obscure effects such as a boom in Argentina’s wine industry, improved by Italian immigrants who arrived by train.

But perhaps his most telling chapters deal with more recent periods. He observes: “For a time in the Sixties and early Seventies it seemed as if rail travel might have had its day. Who needed trains when they had cars… Or when trucks could take virtually any load anywhere? Certainly in the United States and Canada that logic prevailed and passenger services all but disappeared.”

Yet the railways survived. But Wolmar believes an opportunity was missed through tardiness in replacing steam with more modern traction. He also argues that in Britain a similar mistake is being made through the failure to launch a major programme of building dedicated lines for high speed trains, which he sees as a principal key to the railway’s future success.

Railways have been a Cinderella in Britain for so long we are in danger of not even noticing how other nations are forging ahead. Wolmar points out that China is spending £200bn to increase its network by 50 per cent. He also highlights how Metro systems, another vital element towards the railway renaissance, are “popping up in the most unexpected places”, including “countless little-known cities such as Brescia (Italy) and Bursa (Turkey)”.

Though he doesn’t make the comparison, it’s a fair bet that most of these systems will be more ambitious than the planned Tees Valley Metro, which will largely adopt existing lines.

But Wolmar is sanguine about the railways’ future. He says: “The railways have turned the corner from the dark days of the Fifties and Sixties when it was thought they would lose any relevance to the modern world.”

But, alas, there is nothing yet on the horizon as glamorous as those Harvey Girls.

Scroll to Top