RAILWAYS, declares Christian Wolmar in this illuminating study, “were the most important invention of the second millennium, transporting the Industrial Revolution from a few hot spots to large parts of the world”.
Like the motor car in the 20th century and the internet in recent times, railways have for the most part been bringers of wealth, progress and freedom.
True, they have also had a dark side. The total wars of the 20th century could not have been fought without them, nor could the industrial killing machine that was Auschwitz have processed as many victims in such a short time. Environmental degradation has been another minus, though railways were soon superseded in this respect by the motor car.
But all told the effect of this supremely versatile invention was beneficial. “Everything from mail order goods to milk was carried, while schoolchildren were ferried to school, suburban residents to work and spectators to sports events,” Wolmar explains. “Every conceivable activity could be helped or generated by the railways.”
Britain experienced the first railway boom in the 1840s, financed entirely by private enterprise. But in Europe most nations preferred a state-sponsored approach. From there they spread across the globe. Again, Britain was in the forefront of this process. By 1914 British investors owned 113 railways in 29 countries and specialist financial enterprises in the City arose to protect these investments. Even when railways were commercial failures they offered many external benefits, especially in vast countries such as Canada or Russia. Railway safety has been a constant concern, but as a method of transport it was still seven times safer than stagecoach travel.
This is an excellent generalist’s book. Wolmar, who is the author of an earlier book about Britain’s railways, would appear to have read almost every book about rail travel around the world. He wears his learning lightly and deploys his statistics selectively and therefore to greater effect.
Back in the Fifties and Sixties railways were being written off as outmoded and doomed to oblivion. Indeed Wolmar accepts that “the railways were partly the architects of their own demise by not responding to change quickly and not innovating fast enough”.
But the introduction of high-speed lines in Japan heralded a new age of railway technology and development. While Britain, the birthplace of locomotive railways, has languished in this regard, many other countries around the world have jumped at the opportunity to adopt high-speed lines. High Speed One, the line between London St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel, is a mere 67 miles long, while globally the total length of high-speed lines will soon reach 15,000 kilometres, with China, needless to say, taking the lead. This global phenomenon, says Wolmar, “represents a new railway boom, not quite on the scale of the first in terms of its impact, but a fantastic affirmation of the iron road”.
Wolmar sees many signs of hope for the future. Although the United States is the only major developed economy where intercity passenger travel has “become entirely marginal”, it nonetheless has a thriving freight sector. Metro systems are flourishing around the world. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, new railway lines are appearing and even small railways, given sufficient public money, can be made to pay their way and generate collateral benefits.
Wolmar is contemptuous of short-sighted politicians whose interference has been detrimental to the railways but he recognises that this is nothing new. Similarly he is scornful of the disastrous effects of privatisation, not just in Britain but pretty much everywhere else it has been tried. With the prospect of a gradual decline in oil production over the next few decades, Wolmar dreams that “trains may regain their place at the centre of the transport system”. Although this might seem a little over-optimistic, one thing that’s for sure is that rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Atlantic Books, £25