Once upon a time, every self-respecting schoolboy owned books with titles like The Wonder Book of Railway Wonders or Thrilling Trains of the World. They contained magical tales of speed records, lofty viaducts, plunging tunnels and streamlined locomotives. It was a golden age that many thought had disappeared for ever – until now, when suddenly trains are fashionable again. Want the smartest way to Paris? Take the Eurostar. Impress your friends with your green credentials? Take your holiday in the Dordogne by TGV. New high-speed lines are spreading across the world. Even Britain is expected to build a brand new fast-track line from London to Scotland soon.
Amid this renaissance, Christian Wolmar has written the first general history of the world’s railways for more than 40 years, and, like those schoolboy books of old, it is a ripping read. People will be familiar with Wolmar from his appearances on television – popping up on news bulletins whenever there is a fare rise or train strike to explain it all with infectious enthusiasm. Wolmar loves the railways and his passion drives this book. He does not exaggerate when he claims that railways transformed the world. “Put yourself in the position,” he says, “of a person who had never seen a large machine, nor travelled on anything faster than a galloping horse. Their horizons were necessarily limited and the arrival of the iron road changed that for ever.”
From the historic moment in September 1830 when the first train chuffed between Liverpool and Manchester, there was a race to lay down tracks across the planet. Adventurers, visionaries and rogues were attracted to grandiose projects linking distant corners of the globe in a quest for wealth, power and national unity. The achievements were heroic – India’s railway network was the biggest public works project since the building of the Pyramids. But the human costs were huge. In the 1850s, six thousand workers died during the construction of the Panama railway, the world’s first transcontinental line – 120 for each mile of railway. The cadavers were pickled and sold to medical schools around the world to defray costs. But for the shareholders there were fortunes to be made, and at their peak the railways represented luxury almost beyond belief.
The Twentieth Century Limited, from New York to Chicago, had a dozen staff for just 42 passengers, with a club car, wine bar, barber shop and observation car, with a travelling secretary to take down letters. The train gave the world the expression “red carpet treatment”: the passengers’ feet never had to touch the platform, as a carpet, embossed with the company’s insignia, was rolled out before the train arrived.
Blood, Iron and Gold is full of wondrous curiosities. Did you know that early trains in Australia were pulled by convicts, or that elephants were until recently used to shunt freight wagons in India, or that the world’s most magnificent railway station – the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus in Mumbai – took 10 years to build? The longest possible continuous railway journey in the world is the 10,600 miles between Algeciras in Spain and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And the idea that Mussolini made the trains run on time is apparently a myth.
It is a shame that at the end of the book Wolmar allows his “trainspotter” persona to take over, speculating on the “delicious prospect” that trains might outlive cars. “Imagine a world without car parks, motorways or service stations.” Nevertheless, this authoritative and highly readable book will remain the definitive history for years to come.